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for decades to explain early disappearance in the competition by Europeans or Latin Americans, is becoming somewhat outdated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

Soccer City: Montevideo – a football heritage site longing for success

Estadio Centenario, venue of the first World Cup final in Montevideo. Photo: PA

IT IS the largest city of the world’s most successful and sometimes overlooked national football team. No, it is not Berlin, Madrid or Brasilia, but Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.

Uruguay is the smallest country to have won the World Cup, it has a population of just over three million and Montevideo accounts for around half of them. According to the Mercer report on the quality of living in 2017, the city is the best place to live in South America. It certainly has a growing reputation as a tourist destination and for possessing a carefree atmosphere.

As a football city, Montevideo is something of a heritage site. It was, after all, the location of the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, which Uruguay won 4-2 after beating their neighbours from across the River Plate, Argentina. Uruguay didn’t attempt to travel to Europe to defend their title in 1934 or try and reclaim it in 1938, but they won the first two Latin American-based competitions, securing their second in Brazil in 1950 in somewhat dramatic fashion.

It’s has been easy to forget about Uruguay when you talk about South American football, and that’s largely because of its noisy neighbours, Argentina and Brazil, but Uruguay today has some of the world’s top players, notably Edinson Cavani of Paris St. Germain and Luis Suarez of Barcelona. Furthermore, the country’s record for picking up major prizes is eye-catching: two World Cups – 1930 and 1950; two Olympic gold medals (1924 and 1928); 15 Copa Americas (the last success in 2011 when Uruguay beat Paraguay 3-0 in Buenos Aires). The two World Cups and two Olympic titles represent the four stars on the Uruguayan national team’s badge.

Given the size of Uruguay and its proximity to high profile regional heavyweights, the importance of football to the country has perhaps been amplified by a quest for worldwide acceptance and credbility. In the 1966 FIFA World Cup film, Goal, scripted by Brian Glanville, Uruguay’s coach, Ondino Viera commented: “Other countries have their history, Uruguay has its football”.

A place in the world

There was a time when Uruguayan teams were certainly ranked among the best in the world. In 2009, the International Federation of Football History & Statistics named Peñarol as the top South American club of the 20th century and eighth overall in the same period. Montevideo neighbours Nacional were placed third in the region.

This shows the incredible strength of Uruguayan football in the 1950s through to the 1970s. Many people look upon Latin America as a perpetually emerging region, but there have been times in history when the economic and social state of some countries has been impressive. LatAm has always been rich in raw materials, but politics and a high percentage of poverty has often got in the way of sustained progress.

When Uruguay hosted the inaugural World Cup, the country was just about to tip into a dreadful recession after benefitting from a thriving cattle, hide and wool industries. Uruguay built a new stadium to be the centrepiece of their tournament, the Estadio Centenario. Designed by Juan Scasso, an architect and urbanist, as well as chairman of Peñarol, the stadium included an Art Deco tower that is as much a monument to Uruguay’s Olympic triumphs as it is the World Cup.

This arena, as the name suggests, was a monument to the centenary of Uruguay, South America’s first reinforced concrete stadium and a symbol of modernity – a statement for the nation.

In more recent times, Uruguay has been notable for its forward-thinking policies, and its society has benefitted from some very liberal thinking, such as the decriminalisation of abortion and the acceptance of gay marriage. The use of marijuana has also been legalised. Uruguay became known as a “mini Switzerland” owing to its emphasis on finance, but in 2002, the country had a savage banking crisis. The country was fortunate, however, to avoid the worst of the global problems of the 2008-10 period.

Time has moved on since Uruguay hosted that first World Cup and despite pleas for the country to stage the 2030 series, the centenary of Jules Rimet’s brainchild, the best that the city known as La Muy Fiel Y Reconquistadora (the very faithful and reconqueror) can hope for is being part of the joint bid involving Paraguay and Argentina. It would certainly be fitting and also return the World Cup to the place where it all started.

Clubs once feared

As mentioned, Montevideo was one of South America’s football hubs in the 20th century, with Peñarol and Nacional leading the way. The Uruguayan championship trophy has never left Montevideo and there have been just 20 occasions when a team other than the big two has won the title. Between them Peñarol and Nacional have won 95 championships – the last team other than this duo to be crowned champions was Danubio in 2014, a club founded in the 1930s by Bulgarian immigrants.

Peñarol were the first winners of the Copa Libertadores in 1960 and they then went on to face the mighty Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup, the forerunner of the current FIFA Club World Cup.

Between 1960 and 1971, Peñarol or Nacional appeared in 10 of the 12 Copa Libertadores finals, with Peñarol winning three (1960,61 and 1966) and Nacional one (1971). But an indication of how the game has changed is underlined by a distinct lack of success in the continental competition by Uruguayan clubs – the last team from the north bank of the River Plate to win the title was Peñarol in 1988.

The two clubs’ influence on the Uruguayan national team has also diminished, largely because the country’s top players seek their fortunes outside of their homeland. In 2014, just one player, Sebastián Coates of Nacional, came from this duo. Consider that in 1970, Peñarol and Nacional provided 16 of the 22-man Uruguay squad, including goalkeeper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz and Pedro Rocha (Peñarol) and Luis Ubina (Nacional). Since then, however, globalisation has meant that young talent leaves home at an earlier age.

The two Montevideo giants are the best supported clubs in Uruguay, but they are no longer forces on the continental stage. When Nacional won the Libertadores Cup in 1988 by Nacional it also coincided with the export of players out of Uruguayan football.

The lack of continental success has only served to make local rivalries even more intense, such as the Clásico del fútbol Uruguayo, Penarol versus Nacional. These two clubs form the oldest rivalry outside the UK in world football, so they know each other well. It’s a passionate affair and has often been marred by violence and even abandoned because of trouble. In Montevideo, there are plenty of derbies every weekend!

Today, Uruguayan clubs operate on very limited budgets and squads comprise promising youngsters hoping for a lucrative move to Europe and veterans whose best days are behind them. There has been criticism of the system in Uruguay which basically comprises members’ clubs that are not particularly well run. It is an outdated model that fails to keep pace with the demands of globalised professional football.

But change could be coming. Manchester City have set-up a base in Montevideo and the City Football Group has acquired Montevideo’s Atlético Torque, who are competing in the Primera Divison for the first time from the outskirts of the capital. With the unlimited wealth that City’s owners seem to have, and the financial state of most clubs in the Primera Division, Torque could possibly become challengers in the near future.

Not this season, though, at least not on the evidence of the opening few weeks of the season. Torque failed to win any of their first seven games, while at the top of the table, it’s the familiar names of Peńarol and Nacional. Both teams, along with another Montevideo club, Defensor Sporting are currently in the group stage of the Libertadores, but none have won a game yet.

Can Uruguayan club football rise again? The same question was asked of their national team and to some extent, it has been answered positively. But it would seem unlikely that the likes of Peńarol and Nacional will reclaim the place they won 50 years ago among world football’s leading names.