Winning the World Cup – invariably constructed in Europe

WHEN ARGENTINA won the controversial World Cup in Qatar, they used no less than 17 players in the final against France. The 17 were drawn from 13 different clubs across five countries; not a single player who featured in the final played for an Argentinian side. This highlights the global nature of modern football, but also the very mobile nature of Argentina’s players, from the great Lionel Messi, who has never played in Argentina as an adult, to the latest star to emerge, Juliàn Álvarez, who moved from River Plate to Manchester City and looks destined for great things.

In their total 26-man squad, only one player was employed by an Argentine club, goalkeeper Franco Armani, the 36 year-old River Plate veteran. Nine of the 26 were over 30 years of age, which doesn’t bode particularly well for the 2022 champions. With most of the manpower Europe-based, it does pose the question, how much of Argentina’s football is a reflection of the South American style. Indeed, does such a thing really exist anymore? Does it get driven out of players who are exported to Europe at a very young age?

Four years earlier, in 2018, France won the World Cup with another nomadic group, although there were far more playing in domestic football than Argentina 2022. But France’s first choice line-up included only two players employed by Ligue 1 clubs. French players are always in demand, as evidenced by the list of teams they turned out for: Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, among others. France used 14 players in their 4-2 victory against Croatia in Moscow, drawn from 12 different clubs. They really were scattered broadly across Europe.

This has not always been the case for World Cup winners, for obvious reasons. In the days when trans-Atlantic travel was a rarity and places like Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro were relatively inaccessible, footballers spent their entire careers in their homeland. Others were paid well enough to keep them at home. Some were simply not allowed to leave.

Argentina were the 10th South American winners of the World Cup and the first from that continent since 2002. They were arguably the most workmanlike of the past champions, despite having Messi in their team. But they were also the most “international” of past winners of the competition from South America.

In 1930, Uruguay’s champions were all playing for Uruguayan clubs and of their 22-man squad, 16 were born in Montevideo and 14 played for the country’s big two, Peñarol and Nacional. Twenty years on, Uruguay’s winning team was also home-based.

Do teams built around a core from one club fare well? For Germany, that seems to have largely been the case. In 1954, West Germany’s miracle-makers in Bern included, in the final, five players from Kaiserslautern, while in 1974, Helmut Schön’s champions had six Bayern Munich players – Maier, Schwarzenbeck, Beckenbauer, Breitner, Hoeneß and Müller. In 2014, Bayern provided no less than seven of the 14 who turned out in the final for Germany against Argentina. Four years earlier, Spain’s World Cup winners included six Barcelona players in their 1-0 win against the Dutch.

Interestingly, when England won the World Cup in 1966, the team in the final came from eight different clubs, including Fulham and Blackpool. West Ham United provided three – Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst. Overall, 15 clubs were called upon, with Manchester United and Liverpool also well represented with three apiece.

Brazil’s squads down the years have illustrated the changing dynamics within football. In 1970, their glorious team came from eight Brazilian clubs, including three players – Carlos Alberto, Clodoaldo and Pelé – from Santos. In their finals of 1958 and 1962, Botafogo were the most prominent club side. But by 1994, their team was split between home-based and exported players. The 2022 squad of 26 included only two players playing in Brazil, while 12 were from the Premier League and five from La Liga.

Exporting players is clearly an important part of football business in South America and it is recognised that in order to make Brazilian and Argentinian football more competitive, there has to be a way to keep players longer, which essentially boils down to money. Until that happens, these countries will continue to be nurseries for Europe, which makes European leagues stronger and weakens the top clubs in Argentina, Brazil et al.

World Cup Final: Never mind the gamesmanship, Messi fulfils his destiny

AT TIMES, Qatar 2022 seemed to be a tournament devised to get Lionel Messi the one major prize that had eluded him in his illustrious career: the FIFA World Cup. The media were constantly sycophantic, ignoring all other contributions, referees seemed far too lenient when Messi transgressed and Argentina’s “shithousery” was largely overlooked as they worked to fulfil the destiny of the little man from Rosario.

Argentina won the World Cup on penalties, a wholly unsatisfactory way for any team to win a tournament. If FIFA had a little more imagination, the holders should have retained their title if their opponents failed to beat them in the match itself. But for a month of football and 64 games to be settled by a fairground sideshow is not just inappropriate but also leaves one with a hollow feeling.

Not that Messi and his team-mates will care too much about how they did it, because they demonstrated throughout the competition that they were prepared to go to any length to win the World Cup. The behaviour of goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, who had been excellent in his shot-stopping and overall agility, performed like an ill-disciplined pub keeper in the vital shoot-out. It left a lot to be desired and if he had acted likewise against an England team, the TV pundits would have been outraged. It was a pity, for Martinez fully deserved his golden glove award and will surely earn himself a move to a big ticket club in the near future.

The final itself was outstanding, as riveting as anything produced in past World Cups. Argentina merited their two-goal lead and France looked incapable of turning the deficit around until they were awarded a penalty in the 78th minute. Kylian Mbappé scored the spot-kick and then netted a truly spectacular volley less than two minutes later to square the game at 2-2. The blood seemed to drain from the face of Messi and others and France looked more likely to score a third before the end of 90 minutes.

Unlike some games, extra time kept everyone on their toes. Messi was denied by Hugo Lloris, but in the 108th minute, he scored from close range but Mbappé saved France with another penalty with two minutes remaining. France missed the chance to clinch victory in the dying seconds, but there was a sense of inevitability about the penalty contest.

Martinez successfully distracted the French players with his face-pulling, jibes and antics that included throwing the ball away. Given this was almost the last act of a pulsating game, his gamesmanship will be remembered just as much as his penalty saves. He certainly warranted his yellow card.

The world didn’t care, for so many people had been willing Messi to win the World Cup. He was also named player of the tournament and was denied the Golden Boot by Mbappé, eight goals to seven. Messi’s haul did include four penalties, some of which appeared to be quite meekly awarded.

Qatar 2022 was an interesting World Cup, never dull and often exhilarating. There were no truly outstanding teams but a few that were enhanced by talented individuals. The most focused and determined sides reached the final four and Argentina had Messi to steer them in the right direction. Without him, they wouldn’t have got far, but they did and they just about deserved their title.

Unfortunately, FIFA still needs someone to set them on the right path. Qatar 2022 may have been successful as a balance sheet exercise, but try to convince anyone with a social conscience that it was the right thing to do. All through the past month, there was an underlying feeling of mistrust around attendances, penalties given to favoured teams and ridiculous amounts of added time. And having made the trip to Qatar with various agendas to show displeasure at the hosts’ human rights record, FIFA stopped them stone dead once they were in the Middle East. It would be nice to believe FIFA has learned a lesson or two, but that really is wishful thinking. Qatar will not be the last suspect host nation.