They say that international football is generally played in the shadow of the club game, where the real money and power reside. Most of the time, players, administrators and sponsors put big clubs’ interests ahead of those of their national teams. Then, every four years there are profits to be made all-around from the biggest spectacle of all, and the normal order is suspended for the few weeks of a pseudo-carnivalesque celebration of national football identities called the World Cup, when the nations come out of the shadows, their federations clean up on TV money and FIFA graft reigns supreme.
That’s all roughly true. But it leaves out the extent to which the football at the top end of the World Cup itself resides in the shadow of the top club teams. The great Spain team of 2008 to 2012, when the Catalan-Spaniards won two European championships as well as the World Cup, was itself a sub-franchise of the even-greater Barcelona team of the same period. And now the dominant team of this World Cup, Germany – whether they win on Sunday or not, they have both been the best team and delivered, in partnership with Brazil, the overwhelmingly memorable historical narrative of this year’s tournament – are built on the foundations of the best team in European football over the last two years: Bayern Munich, home to the majority of the German starters. Anyone who feels disappointed that there was no ceremonial changing-of-the-guard at this World Cup, a match where Spain stepped out and Germany stepped in, can go find the videos of the two-legged European Champions League semifinal between Bayern and Barcelona in spring 2013 – won by Bayern with an aggregate score of 7-0, one goal better than Germany’s demolition of Brazil this week. If you need a moment when the bell tolled and the transition was made, that was it.
A World Cup semifinal in which, e.g., Bayern’s Lahm crosses a ball, Bayern’s Müller swipes at it but gets barely a touch, then Bayern’s Kroos hammers it adeptly into the bottom corner of the goal is no mere coincidence. These players know how to play together, brilliantly more often than not, week after week all the year round; when Brazil imploded, no team was better placed to pick them apart with precise familiarity and familiar precision than Bayern-surgically-grafted-into-Germany.
It doesn’t matter that Bayern didn’t actually win the big Euro-trophy this year. Barca didn’t win it in 2010, after all, but no one then could have doubted their greatness. The Munich club ran away with the German league in 2014 but stumbled near the finish-line in European competition, partly because they’d cruised to domestic champion-status so early, partly because of trying to make some (unneeded) tactical adjustments under ex-Barca manager Pep Guardiola. The Germany team of this World Cup is like last year’s Bayern, ruthlessly athletic, quick thinking and quick passing, no messing around. Bayern-Germany go into the final now against an Argentina team whose two best players are the non-Spain core of the usurped Barcelona side, Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano. That is one big reason the Germans deserve to be favourites.
Another reason they’re favourites, of course, is that Brazil gave them an easy-going training game on Tuesday, while Argentina shed blood, sweat and tears in the aptly named Corinthians arena for three agonising hours on Wednesday.
One of the ironies of the Brazilian catastrophe against Bayern-Germany is that Brazil are (were) the exception to the rule, the one national side in the world that definitely isn’t in the shadow of the club game — not the domestic club game, though that has actually grown with the Brazilian economy in recent years, and not even European club soccer, where hundreds of Brazilian players are scattered. Throughout the four-year ‘cycle’, for decades now, the Brazilian Seleção stands (stood) head and shoulders above other national teams, in terms of its drawing power and appearance fees for international friendlies, in terms of its importance for players, in terms of Nike’s brand strategy. That primacy and reputation lie shattered now, of course – and who knows what will become of all the ‘Samba Soccer Schools’ across the Western world that lured gullible parents with the promise that their kids would be trained by genuine Brazilians, from the home of the beautiful game.
What has been largely missed in all the schadenfreude about the collapse of this year’s ugly Brazil is that for the first 10 or 20 minutes against Germany, they were actually trying to play some version of o jogo bonito. Perhaps they had been stung by all the criticism of their literal and figurative fouling against Colombia; perhaps they really believed that Neymar’s Spirit had descended upon them and in a Pentecostal miracle they would find themselves capable of speaking in tongues and dribbling like their fractured hero. Whatever the reason, they tossed aside their defensive shape and solidity, with Big Phil Scolari spurning the chance to tighten up the selection in Neymar’s absence, and they tore into Germany with reckless abandon.
Or, well, they tried to tear into Germany: it quickly became apparent that their frantic rush of ambition and enthusiasm had not actually transformed, say, Hulk and Fred into technically accomplished footballers. And that Neymar’s Spirit would not cover the central defensive area when David Luiz went wandering. Their ‘tactics’ were suicidal, their limitations as attacking players much more quickly obvious than their alleged limitations as mere spoilers had been. When Germany made the evidence manifest on the scoreboard, Brazil could see it more clearly than anyone, and they utterly fell apart, broken just as they had been by a defensive error against Holland four years ago, but with crazier and more lasting consequences.
Surely among the first of those consequences was the way Argentina and the Netherlands played the second semifinal, a veritable pageant of defensive shape and solidity. That game was strangely fascinating, like staring at an interesting chess puzzle but knowing that no one is going to move any of the pieces. The cool efficiency of the on-field dental work that allowed Pablo Zabaleta to keep playing was about as thrilling as it got. However, in the 90th minute Bayern player Arjen Robben came close to bringing himself and ex-Bayern manager Louis Van Gaal to join the Bavarian contingent in Rio next Sunday. That would have been slightly unjust: Argentina’s advance was probably more pleasing to most neutrals, notwithstanding Messi’s evident exhaustion – to the point that one fears he may not make any great contribution to the final. (It should be noted that last winter Messi took a nice two-month hamstring break, regarded at the time as a bit of perfect-pacing for the World Cup, so maybe there’s something in the tank: we live in hope.)
Nonetheless the final brings together, as it so often uncannily does, the two best teams in the tournament, and it shapes up as a promising match. Its off-field political coloration is brightly irresistible. Wednesday’s semifinal took place on Argentina’s independence day, and now the country that had the guts to bail out its people rather than its creditors by defaulting on sovereign debt to international capitalists goes into the arena against the country that has led the drive to austerity in the name of bailing out bank bondholders. This is not ancient or irrelevant history: some of the hedge funds that refused to accept Argentina’s debt restructuring in 2002 have won a case in a US court that is driving the country into another debt crisis, with a deadline looming in just three weeks’ time. “Stand with Argentina against the debt vultures” says an NGO campaigning on this issue. No, they’re not talking about the World Cup final, but all the same…
And yet, in the politics of football, Germany has a good story to tell. After the national team’s piss-poor showing in the 2000 European championship, the national federation and the clubs together revamped the country’s youth-development system. They made it more coherent, more positive and skill-oriented in the sort of football it taught, and even, they say, more humane. (Christoph Hübner’s excellent 2003 documentary Die Champions, five years in the making and sometimes called soccer’s Hoop Dreams, captures some of the capricious cruelty of the old system.) It may be overly simplistic to label any squad of players as ‘the fruits’ of such a change; it’s certainly absurd to make ‘fixed German soccer’ the first item on Jürgen Klinsmann’s personal resumé; but it’s a real renewal all the same. (Klinsmann’s USA famously shares in the fruits with its German-born contingent, as did five other countries at the World Cup.) No doubt the system has drawbacks and failings, but when you add in the fact that Germany has the best-developed women’s football in the world, and look too at the hint of multi-ethnic colouring of the German team, it is difficult not to feel just a little warm and fuzzy about die nationalmannschaft.
So when it comes to picking a team for next Sunday, I guess you could call that a win-win.
Harry Browne is writing for Counterpunch throughout the World Cup. He lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author ofThe Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:email@example.com, Twitter@harrybrowne