Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Mind The Gap - What Gap?

Much has been made of the apparent failure of many of the big teams and success of the so-called smaller teams at this summer's world cup. However, when you look closer, the failure is more accurately defined as European failure as opposed to big team failure. Yes, both Brazil and Argentina have at times struggled, with Brazil failing to beat Mexico and Argentina struggling to beat Iran. They appear to have been caught out by the pace and organisation of their opposition's defending.

In contrast, the European team's struggles have gone beyond struggling to win. In many cases they have jumped all the way to struggling, and often failing, to avoid defeat. It is easy to complain and roll out the usual clich├ęd responses to world cup disappointment, but should the performance of European teams at this World Cup be a shock to anybody other than those who do not understand football.

European teams had always failed to win the trophy outside of Europe until four years ago, and have never won in South America, (just as the process is true in reverse). However, they still managed to compete well, providing semi-finalists and finalists on numerous occasions. The lack of international teams at a competitive level outside of Europe and South America allowed this to happen. The sheer number of European teams competing ensured some level of success.

The last time the competition was held in South America, Argentina 1978, 10 of the 16 competing nations were European (62.5%) and 3 were South American (18.75%) with one each from Asia, Africa and CONCACAF (6.25%). Those three teams combined only managed to take one point from games against European or South American opposition (Iran v Scotland). They were there to make up the numbers and give credibility to the competition being a World cup.

That was then. This is now.

The rest of the world is fast catching up at international level, and some have overtaken. There is now no room for error, and the difficulties European teams face in competing in South America are punished. There is no longer the factor of sheer numbers ensuring some European success.

This year only 13 out of 32 finalists are European (40.63%). South American teams still make up 18.75% with 6 teams, but elsewhere there has been growth; Africa 5 (15.63%), Asia 4 (12.5%) and CONCACAF 4 (12.5%). In order to succeed European teams have to play well against non-European opposition.

Perhaps with the exception of France v Honduras, there has not been a single really impressive European performance against non-European opposition so far. There have been victories, but not convincing victories. Belgium is a prime example of winning without playing well. At least they are winning though. Fans of the European countries on their way home would love to be able to complain about unconvincing victories.

South America takes European teams out of their comfort zones - and they don't enjoy the process. Heat, humidity, altitude and travelling are all factors that seem to affect the European teams more than others. We could blame our long football seasons if it wasn't for the fact that most of the other team's players are playing in European leagues. We could blame the influx of foreign players if it wasn't for the fact that many of the nations doing well have less players playing in top leagues than European teams do.

Across Europe there will be the usual response to failure and disappointment. Calls for sackings, for re-organisation and for a return to the tried and tested techniques that saw Europe rule the world. Well, apart from when we played in South America! Perhaps though the answer lies in adopting a less arrogant and more realistic point of view. Europe enjoyed the advantage of being the home of football for a long time. We also delighted in exporting the game abroad and showing that our game was the best game in the world. Europe has no god-given right to be the top footballing continent. Perhaps when the fans and media stop demanding that right our teams will have the space to learn and develop into squads capable of earning that right rather than expecting it.

Even harder to accept is the possibility that we may need to look abroad for lessons in how to achieve success. Countries not burdened by a long footballing tradition, not hampered by history, have less limitations on building for future success. Countries such as the United States allow a national manage to shape the national game beyond the odd weekend and summer tournament. They allow managers to bring in systems that are implemented throughout their league, with the aim of helping the national team. The est of the world could teach Europe a thing or two about building football success.

Rather than being despondent over a lack of success in this world cup, European fans should celebrate the most competitive World Cup in living memory. Yes defeat hurts, but the joy of celebrating good football outweighs that. Enjoy the moment while we can, because if there is one logical step to be taken after this world cup it is not to ask why so few European teams made it out of the groups - it is to ask why so many were in there in the first place. The days of European dominance are ending.

We used to call football the World Game. Now IT IS the world game.


  1. In addition to the World Cup becoming a more global competition, correctly reflecting the regional powers of the game [though Oceania is still poorly served], you have to also accept there has been massive upheavals in the European Game. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, only one country has become bigger, with the re-unification of Germany. Whereas the USSR, Yugoslavia, & Czechoslovakia have all split into smaller constituent countries.

    For some countries this was good, there were more smaller nations, for others [like my own country Scotland] it meant there were now more countries in Europe larger than them..

    Like the UK took the game to Europe, and were eventually overtaken: now Europe took the game to the World and are being caught year upon year.


    1. I agree, and combined with there being more European countries I believe it is inevitable that over time Europe will gradually lose some of its current world cup places. This will make qualification even harder and the fans and media will need to accept that qualification itself is a success and not an expectation.

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