How the dominance of European football is hurting the World Cup
Almost all the teams are playing the same style—rigid in defence, sitting in their own halves and being very pragmatic in attack
New Delhi: The football in Russia has been, largely, predictable. Watch the matches between, say, Uruguay and Egypt, or France and Australia, if you take the jerseys away or can’t identify the individuals, it will be hard to say which is which just by their style of play.
Almost all the teams at the tournament have been sitting compact in their own halves without possession, focused more on disrupting and denying space to the opposition. Whilst in attack, the packed centres have instigated the use of flanks to get crosses in. The result has been a high percentage of goals being scored from set pieces.
The use of video assistant referees (VAR) has meant very few infractions in the box go unpunished. As a result, in only 10 days of action the number of penalties awarded in Russia equalled those in the entire tournament in Brazil. Apart from the goals conjured by individual brilliance, set pieces and VAR have been the two buzzwords from Russia thus far.
In the aftermath of Germany’s win over Sweden, the German striker Timo Werner summed it up succinctly when he said: “There are no normal goals in this cup. It’s either a set piece, own goal or a banger. And this time it (Toni Kroos’ goal) was a banger.”
The big international teams have been known for certain styles of play. England were wedded to their 4-4-2 formation, the Brazilians had their technically brilliant flair football, the Germans had their organisation and efficiency, Nigeria would thrive with their sense of adventure. But the lines have become increasingly blurred in Russia.
The shape of the Brazilian defence in their opening match against Switzerland could have easily been mistaken for England.
The primary reason for all the teams effectively playing the same style is down to the footballing education of the players involved. Most talented players are bought at a very young age by European outfits where they learn the craft of their trade. The case of the Brazilian youngster Vinicius Junior is instructive. Last summer, Real Madrid signed the 16-year-old before he had even debuted for Flamengo’s senior side.
The primacy of European football, which has come about as a consequence of financial riches—bringing with it state of the art facilities and salaries that are beyond the means of their non-European counterparts—has led to a greater divide in quality between the teams with Europe-based players and those without them.
Morocco are a good example of a team that has a majority of players based in Europe. In fact, several of them come from the European diaspora. They became part of the Moroccan set up after failing to make the grade in their adopted countries.
The Dronten, Netherlands-born midfielder Hakim Ziyech was on the periphery of making it to the Dutch national team, but after being repeatedly overlooked by the Dutch set up, he switched allegiance to his ancestral country. Amine Harit represented France in youth teams up to the Under-21s before answering the Moroccan call.
Only two members of their 23-man World Cup squad are based in Morocco. Coach Herve Renard gives his team talk in French and English instead of Moroccan Arabic.
Morocco, however, have also been an outlier with their performances in Russia, being one of the very few teams to have continuously played attractive football.
The smallest outfits like Iran, Panama and Tunisia have resorted to very defensive formations, putting more emphasis on stifling the opposition attack than creating moves of their own. And it makes sense. The international managers do not get enough time to plan elaborate attacks, it is much easier to drill a defensive shape and rely on individual brilliance for the goals. It is not a new development, however. Smaller teams with less quality players have always practised a defensive brand of football in attempts to eke out a point.
But the loss of national team identities for the bigger names has been pronounced in Russia.
Apart from Morocco, Senegal and Colombia are two relatively small teams that have played attractive attacking football and both are in the running for a place in the round of 16. Whilst they too have players playing in top Europe leagues, most of them cut their teeth at non-European outfits.
Peru are another side that have looked distinctly South American, with their propensity to play flair football. It is no coincidence that only five of their 23-man squad play in Europe.
The concentration of top talent in Europe helps the quality of their domestic leagues, but a global product like the World Cup is suffering because of it.