Russia 2018 underlines where global power is shifting

WITH Brazil and Uruguay falling at the quarter-final stage, the 2018 World Cup became an all-European affair, not a total surprise, but the old excuse of geographical disadvantage, used for decades to explain early disappearance in the competition by Europeans or Latin Americans, is becoming somewhat outdated

Only Brazil and Germany have won the World Cup in another continent, Brazil in 1958 (Sweden), 1994 (USA) and 2002 (Japan/South Korea) and Germany in 2014 (Brazil). But given that football, like all industries, has gone global, with players from Latin America now plying their trade in Europe and the ubiquitous Brazilian found in all corners of the world, the somewhat scientific view that a European team could not win in South America and the Latins are unable to adjust to the cooler climes of the old world is no longer so relevant.

Latin America’s failure to reach the last four, in a time when Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina are full of very good players, suggests the gap between Europe and South America may be widening. Add to that Brazil’s capitulation on home soil in 2014, and there are concerns about the five-time winners that need addressing.

Even at their most mediocre, Brazil have had cache and always figured among the most fancied teams to win the World Cup. There’s certainly a Brazil obsession among the media and commentatorsin the UK, with references to samba football, “magic” and the glamour of the yellow shirts. The desire to look vaguely “Brazilian” is what inspired a generation of away kits across Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, but that’s where it ended, a yellow shirt didn’t mean an average football team suddenly acquired Copacabana-type skills.

The reference point for most writers has invariably been 1970, Pele, Carlos Alberto’s goal, Socrates and a succession of “new Peles”. The liquid style of 1970 has rarely been seen since that wonderful evening in Mexico City, but players like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and now, Neymar, have kept the legend alive that Brazil play wonderful, ball-juggling football. It’s difficult, however, to get out of your mind some of the Brazilian teams that have tarnished that image in World Cups. We can’t forget the likes of Ze Maria in 1974, for example.

And now Neymar, at 26, returns to Paris (for how long?) aware that he’s running out of career if he’s going to make a mark on the World Cup. He’s arguably got one more peak-time event to come, but will he have the players around him to make Brazil champions again? And has he, unlike Lionel Messi, got the Maradona-like charisma to carry a nation on his back?

If you believed some sections of the media, Brazil have a divine right to win the World Cup. From 1970 to 1994, it was always a case of, “20 years since they last won it”, in much the same way there was a day counter marking how many years had lapsed between Manchester United’s title win in 1967 and the present day – that particular run lasted 26 years. It took 24 years for Brazil to lift the trophy after captivating the world in 1970 and by the time Qatar comes around (if, indeed, it does come around), it will be two decades since Ronaldo won the 2002 competition.

But times are different and the Seleção will have more hurdles than ever before. We are coming out of a golden period for top players in world football that has seen Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, Edison Cavani, Neymar and others come to the fore. The cycle has almost run full circle and of the top Latin Americans at this World Cup only Neymar will probably appear in Qatar.

Brazil’s squad for Russia included nine players over the age of 30 and the team that lost to Belgium in the quarter-finals had Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Fernandinho and Miranda in that category. Furthermore, Paulinho, Willian and Fagner were all 29 years of age. This wasn’t a team for the future, although it did include Gabriel Jesus (21). This does make you wonder if Brazil were fielding a transition side as it finds the next generation of exports to Europe.

And this is the real concern for the future. European club football is where the power firmly sits. Wealthy corporate clubs that can buy talent from anywhere – Financial Fair Play, visas, third-party ownership issues aside. A while ago, player-watchers were talking about a clutch of new young Brazilians that could bury the hangover of 2014 – Lincoln Henrique, Malcom, Thiago Maia, Vitinho and Vinicius Junior. They are currently playing in places like Moscow, Lille, Turkey and Bordeaux, with the exception of Vinicius, who is at Real Madrid and still earmarked for greatness. Largely, it is still “jam tomorrow”, but there are still enough talented youngsters around to carry the flag.

Most international teams are squads of hired guns who play around the world (Belgium is a good example) and Brazil has long exported its best players to Europe. Indeed, the Brazilian footballer is one of the most well-travelled.

The top Brazilians and Argentinians don’t earn their crust in domestic football – Messi, for example, is renowned around the world for being a Barcelona icon rather than the top Argentinian. Neymar, by contrast, is certainly known for being “Brazilian”, but like all post-Pele stars, he has to carry the burden of being the nation’s great sporting hope. Sometimes that can be a responsibility too far for a young man. Before you know it, a World Cup or two has passed and they’re still waiting for true greatness to emerge. That’s where any comparisons with the unmatched Pele fade away, for the divine number 10 was a teenager when he demonstrated his worth and the narrative was set from an early age. Neymar, for all the hype and marketing and clouds of smoke, has yet to convince everyone and received considerable criticism after Brazil went out of the competition in Russia.

Neymar may now find that playing in Ligue 1 with Paris Saint-German may be lucrative and glamorous, but without World Cup success to gild his reputation, he may go in search of club football that elevates his status once more. It probably won’t happen in Paris, even though PSG are one of the dozen or so clubs that are running European football today.

These clubs have the money, the clout and the world’s top players, as demonstrated in the Guardian’s 100 top footballers listing at the turn of 2018. Moreover, of the 736 players from the 32 national squads competing in Russia, 136 came from the top 12 clubs. The wealth that these clubs enjoy puts domestic leagues outside of a handful of top competitions in the shade and that includes the likes of Brazil’s Serie A.

Sceptics may argue the international game cannot be influenced by club football, but it’s like this – the club’s pick-up players from Latin America, they sell them for huge sums, the clubs and intermediaries get richer, the clubs can further invest in the creation of talent and the end product is that countries like Belgium can nurture better players that eventually end up in the English Premier, Bundesliga or La Liga where they become even more proficient. In a roundabout way, Europe becomes stronger while South America’s best players become European products schooled in the ways of European clubs and methods. That old raw “magic” gets coached out of them to some extent and they mostly become very efficient, often very skilful, but invariably inconsistent players working within a well-defined system. The very things that made Brazilians so appealing often get wasted.

Some observers have seen the warning signs – Brazil struggled against Switzerland, Argentina failed against Iceland and Croatia, Uruguay flopped when they came up against decent opposition. Even countries that are not considered among the very top European nations are causing the South Americans problems. At the same time, it has to be questioned if relatively poor leagues such as those in the region can continue to produce the talent that goes on to make its mark in Europe and in the international arena. In Soccerex’s recent Football Finance 100 report, not a single Brazilian club made the top 50 and although a dozen or so were included in the list, it was in the lower reaches of the analysis.

Life does find a way even in the humblest of surroundings and history tells us that Brazil is arguably the world’s most passionate football country. Whether it is the Brazil of Pele, Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto and Gerson, or the less exciting and modern version, the World Cup needs strong South Americans to provide an alternative to the European way. At this moment in time, it does seem as though economics may determine the shape of football’s future, but time and time again, countries like Brazil have disproved the theory there is a correlation between economic strength and football success. Is that about to change, though, as the game’s big-business status threatens to polarise sport even more than it is today? How many Neymars are there waiting to be discovered in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro?

Photo: PA

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