England has struggled for 60-80 years now to come to terms with the fact that just because football originates there does not mean its national team is any good at it. Yet this World Cup raises an intriguing question – could the same now apply to the whole of Europe?
Clearly, Europe remains not just where the game came from but also home to its richest and best leagues. However, is it producing its best players and national teams?
The performances of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez (when he’s not hungry), James Rodriguez, the Valencias (when they’re on the pitch), Joel Campbell, Rafael Marquez and others from Latin America would very much suggest otherwise. Of course, anyone can produce players – Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba have excelled at club level but never played a World Cup knock-out game after all. What about national teams?
From 1986, when the modern World Cup introduced knock-out from the last 16, until 2006, consistently nine or ten of those 16 were European. However, in 2010 this fell dramatically to just six. At this World Cup, from a European perspective, things have not recovered.
What is further interesting is the assumption that European teams are the mighty ones. Group C, for example, was supposed to be a battle between Italy and England for top spot with Uruguay the main threat because of its Liverpool connection. In fact Costa Rica won the group easily and both European teams went home. Portugal was supposed to cruise through with Germany; Spain with the Netherlands; Russia with Belgium and so on. Even when European teams did get through, it was often a close thing (none closer than Greece).
For all that, all is not lost for Europe. Even with six out of 16 last time, coincidentally all playing each other, three still emerged to contest the semi-final and two the final. This is also an “away” World Cup – the last one in Europe saw four European semi-finalists (there have never been fewer than three at a European-hosted World Cup). Europe still produces excellent players (Ronaldo, Müller, now Pogba etc) and teams.
However, it is clear that we can no longer assume European dominance. A re-assessment of how we look at the game globally is needed.