Travel World Cup 2018: And the winner is …

Simon Calder
Rock-solid defence: how does Stonehenge square up against other ancient ceremonial locations worldwide?: Getty

Almost no-one outside France and Croatia is entirely happy with the way the 2018 World Cup has unfolded. So I have rerun it, based on something far more important than the footballing prowess of a few hundred well-paid young men. In the spirit of Jules Verne rather than Jules Rimet, I give you the Travel World Cup, with nations pitched against one another solely on the relative merits of their tourist attractions.

Only one rule: the referee’s decision is final. So with no slow-motion replays, let play commence.

Most of the group winners and runners-up are obvious: Egypt and Russia prevail over Saudi Arabia and Uruguay; France and Peru over Australia and Denmark; Mexico and Germany over South Korea and Sweden; Argentina and Croatia over Nigeria and Iceland.

But there are three tight groups. Spain and Iran only narrowly triumph against Portugal and Morocco; Switzerland and Senegal are squeezed out by the tropical twosome, Brazil and Costa Rica. And England and Tunisia edge it over Belgium and Panama.

On to the round of 16, where – as in football, so in tourism – key contenders get knocked out.

France beats Croatia on everything from cuisine to countryside. Egypt trounces Iran due to its sheer weight of antiquity, while Japan out-attracts Tunisia. In a couple of all-Latin clashes, Argentina and Costa Rica have no chance against Peru and Mexico respectively.

Germany narrowly defeats Brazil: while the latter attacks with a wealth of nature, Germany’s cultural midfield and defence of rich heritage prevail. And Spain’s defeat of Russia shows that quality can triumph over quantity.

England plays Colombia in the round of 16, as happened in real footballing life, but this time loses on penalties: Stonehenge and the San Agustin archaeological site cancel each other out. The colonial glories of Cartagena cannot compete with York and Bath. But England has no defence against sublime tropical beaches, deep rainforest and mountains soaring to almost 19,000 feet. You don’t get that in the Lake District.

If the UK fielded a united team, the result could be different: the Giant's Causeway, Edinburgh Castle and Portmeirion would add plenty of attacking power.

Into the quarter-finals, where Germany’s adversary is its one-time ally, Japan. Both have super trains, of course, but Japan has geography on its side: an astonishing repertoire from the grace of Mount Fuji to the lonely sub-tropical archipelago west of Okinawa. More exotic than the Baltic.

Mexico sees off Costa Rica, but the other two quarter-finals are clashes of titans. Consider Spain v Peru. Even Granada’s Alhambra pales beside Machu Picchu; the Sierra Nevada is no match for the Andes; and the Amazon basin is much more alluring than the Ebro Delta. But Peru has no coastal city to compare with Barcelona, and the sprinkling of island gems from Menorca to Tenerife help win it for Spain.

France against Egypt? Paris’s Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe are mere arrivistes compared with the Pyramids and Sphinx on the outskirts of Cairo, while the temples of the upper Nile around Luxor trump the cathedrals of Notre Dame and Chartres. But only one of them has a superb rail network and produces some of the world’s best wines. Au revoir, Egypt.

While France makes light work of Japan in the first semi-final, Spain loses in the second to its former colonial possession: Mexico has more compelling coastlines and culture.

In the final, the Mexicans outjump the French with Pico de Orizaba one-sixth taller than Mont Blanc (and they don’t share it with Italy, either). But while Mayans were doing marvellous things long before the Romans wandered into Gaul, the Aztec era was cut short by those darn conquistadores. No time to construct a palace as miraculous as Versailles.

France has outstanding breadth, with isles from Corsica via the Caribbean to Reunion – as well as Clipperton Island, a coral atoll cheekily just 700 miles off the Pacific coast of Mexico. And the alliterative midfield trio of Matisse, Manet and Monet are too strong for the the Mexican artistic duo, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

France’s tourism offering seems unbeatable. Except, perhaps, by the half-dozen holiday heavyweights absent from the World Cup: Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, China and the US.

I look forward to re-running the rerun for Qatar in 2022. While it is too early to speculate on the outcome, I imagine the country so justly awarded the right to host the tournament in four years’ time may not get far as a great travel nation.