We are now five days into the 2010 World Cup finals and already several key themes are being discussed ad infinitum. The weight of the balls being used and the influence of the vuvuzelas have already been discussed in the media to the point of saturation in the media (none of which is to say that we won’t return to these particular themes over the next couple of days or so), as have the paucity of goals seen so far. What seems to be becoming one recurring theme so far during the 2010 World Cup is a degree of under-achievement on the part of the qualifiers from the UEFA confederation.
It hardly needs to be pointed out that these are early days yet in this tournament. However, over the five days since the start of it, the European teams that have played against non-European teams have been marked out by a conspicuous lack of success. It began on Friday evening with France scrabbling a draw from a desperate match against an equally mediocre-looking Uruguay side, continued with England’s draw against the USA and Greece’s defeat at the hands of a lively looking South Korea team on Saturday, and on through yesterday and today with further failures on the parts of Serbia, Italy, Slovakia and Portugal. The only wins against non-European teams for UEFA members so far have come for Germany against a ten-man Australia and a narrow win for Slovenia against Algeria at the weekend.
Ordinarily, when European team fail outside of their home continent, the weather is blamed for such a situation occurring. However, in the run-up to this particular World Cup it was suggested on more than one occasion that the South African winter would suit the European nations. Indeed, at the time of writing (the build-up to the match between Brazil and North Korea), the temperature has been reported as being twenty-six degrees fahrenheit – in other words, below freezing. If one was looking, therefore, to “blame” the conditions in any way, we would have to look at the altitude, but many of the teams that have held or beaten the Europeans so far would consider playing at altitude to be as much of a grind as their opponents. Did, for example, Ghana benefit more from playing at altitude than Serbia, or New Zealand than Slovakia?
Others may seek to consider the fact that the World Cup comes at the end of a long, hard European season. However, the most significant win for a European team against a non-European team, Germany’s 4-0 demolition of Australia on Sunday night, saw Joachim Löw field a total of seven players out of the fourteen that played any part in the match from a Bayern Munich side that reached the UEFA Champions League final – the most gruelling slog that a European club side could have to toil for over the course of a season. In any case, a sizable number of the players from many of the teams playing in the tournament now play in Europe. Tiredness isn’t necessarily the panacea of a reason that some may wish to believe that it is.
We have suggested before on this site that it is perhaps European sides that travel less effectively than those from other parts of the world. This certainly seems to be the case in terms of winning the World Cup – no European team has ever won the tournament outside of Europe and on current form that seems likely to continue this summer. This argument is difficult to prove at this early stage of the tournament, when we are less than even a third of the way through the group matches. The breadth of early under-achievement of teams from the European confederation, however, does at least give us pause for thought. From the defending champions Italy failing to find their way past a Paraguay team that had only won one of its eleven previous World Cup meetings with European sides to first-timers Slovakia possibly ruining their chances of getting through the group stage after failing to beat a New Zealand team that most had written off as cannon fodder before a ball was kicked, there are definitely signs that a pattern is starting to emerge.
The least palatable explanation for those that have failed is that the players simply don’t take the World Cup that seriously any more and that the club competitions, where the prize money and bonuses are at their biggest, are now the summit of players’ ambitions. This, however, fails to take into account the professionalism of modern players and their if anything insuppressible desire to win. It is, if anything, insulting to modern players to imply that they somehow “don’t want” to win the tournament that still guarantees the biggest global audience in football. However, in the tangled web of intangible speculation, it remains a possibility.
Ironically, the failure of other European nations to win their matches has cast England’s performance against the United States of America in a rather more favourable light than it might otherwise have been. Certain quarters of the more excitable corners of the British press have been tempted to predictable hyperventilation by Fabio Capello’s team’s failure to beat the Americans on Saturday night, but in reality there is nothing shocking about the eighth ranked team in the world drawing against the fourteenth ranked team in the world. England supporters that prefer their glasses half full might even pause to reflect that, thus far, England have done at least no worse so far than Spain, France or Italy have after one match of the group phase.
It is too early to offer much more than idle speculation as to the reasons for the poor European start to the 2010 World Cup finals, and it is at least possible that this is a mere blip from a handful of fixtures. However, the psychological effect on a non-European team playing a European team over the next few days could be profound. What a boon it could be for a coach to be able to say to his players, “Forget about your inferiority complex about playing these European teams. Look at the results that they have managed so far. They’re not half as good as they think they are”. Indeed, it might even be that the seeds of UEFA’s slow start to the 2010 World Cup might be most accurately found in that final sentence.