Monday, June 21, 2010

Why are the big European teams struggling?

As of the end of the second round of group stage matches, the five major European teams -- those that received one of FIFA's coveted #1 seeds -- are a combined 4W-4D-2L. That's England, Germany, Holland, Italy and Spain. They've taken only 16 of a possible 30 points. They have dropped points from matches against the likes of New Zealand, Algeria, and Switzerland, among others.

If you add France, the '98 World Cup champion and '06 runner-up, who are the top European seed in Group A, it's 4W-5D-3L, or 17 points out of 36. And if you are really a glutton for punishment, look at the four European World Cup winners (France, England, Italy, and Germany), whose combined record is 1W-5D-2L, or 8 out of 24 possible points.

The FIFA #1 seeding is supposed to protect these teams from early exit and insure passage into the second round, by preventing them from eliminating each other in the group stage. But going into the final group matches, only Holland are safe, having won both their matches. Everybody else -- yes, everybody else -- is vulnerable going into their last match. France seem destined for early elimination, and the strange math of the group stage could see off one or two others, or more likely see a few of them finish second in their groups, setting up difficult Round of 16 matches.

What is going on? If you read the European press, it's down to bad coaches, spoiled super-star players, bad mentality, and lack of effort. In the minds of the European media, European teams and players are clearly "better" than their opposition, but their decadence and lassitude make them vulnerable to the hustling football underclass from Eastern Europe, the Americas, and Asia. Sound familiar?

There's another explanation: these European teams just aren't that good outside Fortress Europe. And the rest of the world is getting better, fast.

We saw glimmers of this in 2002, when rank outsiders Turkey and South Korea reached the semi-finals, and Senegal and USA reached the quarters. Back on home soil in 2006 the eight quarter-finalists comprised six European teams plus Brazil and Argentina. But 2010 (South Africa), 2014 (Brazil) and 2022 (USA or Qatar) are all non-European cup sites.

Let's look at the specific example of Group C in this year's tournament. When the group was announced, the Sun tabloid in London ran a headline proclaiming: "England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks" (with the worlds lined up to spell E-A-S-Y). Easy, eh? USA are the champions of the CONCACAF group. Champions. They beat out World Cup qualifiers Mexico, who are currently scorching Group A, and Honduras. Qualifying in CONCACAF requires playing in some of the world's most hostile away venues (if you want a great example, read Bill Simmons' piece on Azteca). As CONCACAF champions, they played in last summer's Confederations Cup and finished second in a group that included Italy and Brazil, beat Spain in the semis, and lost a heartbreaker to Brazil in the final after going up 2-0.

Slovenia qualified from a difficult group that included Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Northern Ireland, all teams that have qualified for the World Cup finals at some point, then beat powerhouse Russia in a playoff to qualify themselves. Algeria qualified after winning a playoff against African champions Egypt, and were themselves a semi-finalist in the highly-competitive African Cup of Nations in 2010. Easy. Sure.

In addition, the globalization of professional football means that European national leagues are no longer the near-exclusive domain of national players. The three USA stars (Donovan, Dempsey and Howard) all started for top clubs in the English Premiership in 2009-10. Most of the rest of the USA team plays for smaller clubs in the top European leagues, where they face world class talent every week. As do the Slovenians. And the Algerians. In fact, a core group of those Algerians who played England to a "shocking" 0-0 draw last week formed a part of France's successful U17, U18 and U19 national squads before taking advantage of dual citizenship to play for Algeria.

Parity has arrived at the World Cup. In 1954, the group stage was largely a joke. There were results of 5-0, 9-0, 8-3, 7-0, 7-2, 7-0 and 5-0. Not to mention a couple of 4-1's. And the tournament had only 16 teams. The current 32 team format has been in place since 1998 -- you'd think the expansion would have resulted in more lopsided first round results by diluting the talent pool, what with all those extra spots going to "lesser" federations, but it's just not the case. Sure, there are still the occasional shellackings (vis Portugal's 7-0 hiding meted out on North Korea today), but as a percentage of group stage matches, it's nothing like the past.

There was a great moment on TV after the England-Algeria match when commentator Steve McManaman banged his head on the desk and lamented the woeful performance of the England team, how they "under-performed" and wasted all that "talent." His co-commentator, Alexi Lalas, turned to him and said, "Maybe they are just not that good." That's the elephant in the room with European national-team football these days.


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