What’s in a Team?

After a few early wobbles by traditionally big teams, the World Cup has settled into predictability. The teams who won the first-round groups have all advanced through the first knock-out stage into the quarterfinals — with one exception, the USA, who jumped from ‘eliminated’ to ‘group-winners’ so dramatically in stoppage-time against Algeria, and whose group was so poor in quality to begin with that it was no surprise to see them ‘eliminated’ again.

But apparently none of this was predictable at all. A BBC poll of “football experts” just before the World Cup began last month asked about 60 international “pundits, players, managers, journalists and other experts” to predict which teams would occupy the top-four places, i.e. the semifinalists. By early this week, even before all eight of the quarterfinal berths were filled, it was clear that not a single one of those experts had got it right. Some of them, moved by patriotism or blindness, had mistaken France, Italy and England for potential winners or near-winners of the tournament. Others hadn’t bothered looking at the ‘bracket’, and so missed the fact that Brazil and the Netherlands, each overwhelmingly likely to win its group, would then face each other in the last eight and therefore couldn’t both be semifinalists. Almost no one noticed that Uruguay and Ghana had potentially nice routes through the tournament.

In other words, “football experts” are prone to spouting rubbish, making them about as reliable as experts in most other fields. But one of the reasons that the World Cup might be good at tripping up such experts is that the tournament manifests a tension hidden in the word ‘team’. Most of the time, each of the teams in whose fate we are now immersed is just a collection of elite footballers who happen to share the same passport, but rarely play together — they may even be fierce rivals. For a few weeks every four years, they are thrust together, often after a fraught and publicly debated selection process, to live cheek-by-jowl for several weeks, and forced to play as a World Cup tournament team.

Some US soccer-haters use this fact as a stick with which to beat the World Cup — it’s just a drawn-out version, they say, of the NBA All-Star game. That’s clearly a misguided criticism: for one thing, and sadly, we don’t get anything like as much highly skilled showboating at the World Cup as at the All-Star game. And performances and results at the World Cup clearly mean a lot to players, coaches, fans, clubs and nations.

I wrote earlier this week about the material reasons that some individual players might be more motivated than others to perform to their very highest potential. But there are also reasons, some of them political, why some collections of elite players are more suited than others to becoming a great World Cup team, thus tripping up the pre-tournament experts who are inclined to look for the best collection of footballers.

Of course it’s not true that national squads get together only every four years. In between World Cups they play qualifying games, a few friendlies, perhaps even a continental tournament if they manage to qualify. But for various reasons these games won’t necessarily use the same players who get picked for the World Cup. Diego Maradona has notoriously called up 100 different players for Argentina squads in the mere 20 months that he has been in charge of the national selection. What’s more, the timing of the qualifying process for this tournament means that teams kicked off in South Africa in mid-June 2010 having not played a meaningful game since November 2009.

It may also be an exaggeration, at least, to suggest that nationalism or even nationality provides the glue to hold these squads together. Paraguay rushed a passport in March for Lucas Barrios, an Argentine with a Paraguayan mother, after it became clear that the near-fatal shooting of Salvador Cabañas in January had left the national team short of striking options. Ghana only secured the services of Berliner and German youth international player Kevin-Prince Boateng in the weeks leading up to the tournament, after his final falling-out with the German management. Tulio Tanaka, with his samurai hair-style, certainly looks the part of a Japanese defender, but he got the passport to go with it only once he was 22, after a childhood spent in his native Brazil.

Teams also have complicated relationships to the nation-states with which they share their names. Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, announced this week that he was suspending the national team from international competition and disbanding the national soccer federation so that both could be rebuilt, after the team’s dismal World Cup showing. But it is not at all clear that he can do this. FIFA, after all, warned Nicolas Sarkozy just this week not to interfere in football, and all he wanted to do was to investigate what went wrong with les Bleus. The Nigerian president has rather more pointed interference in mind. But since every single one of the 23 men in the Nigerian World Cup squad plays his club football outside Nigeria, one can only wish Jonathan “Goodluck” in his efforts to enforce his ban — which is, frankly, born of quite appropriate suspicion about the organization of soccer in Nigeria.

If the Nigerian Football Federation will struggle to negotiate its place between, on the one hand, its national government and, on the other, its players and the international federation, then other national bodies have different pressures. England, for example, brought 23 home-based players to South Africa. But the English Football Association (FA) is deeply involved in, and profits by, the major domestic league, the FA Premiership. If the national team suffers while the league and its major clubs thrive — which is exactly what is happening — then the FA is not in a position to make the national team a priority.

A illustrative case is Wayne Rooney. When he picked up a minor injury toward the end of the league season, many England fans relished the rest it would give him before the World Cup. But his club, Manchester United, were still fighting for trophies; and United’s Scottish manager, Alex Ferguson, is notoriously indifferent to players’ international duties, especially for England. So Rooney kept trying to play through his injuries, and the results were plain to see on the fields of South Africa over the last three weeks. Other factors may come into play: the fact that Rooney comes from Liverpool, a city famously alienated from ‘English’ identity (an odd identity, to be sure, since it does not conform to any existing nation-state); and the rumor that there were north-south divides within the English dressing-room. In any case, Rooney showed where his priorities lie.

Contrast that with Luis Fabiano, the Brazilian striker who plays for Sevilla in the Spanish league. When he missed games for his club this season — he missed more than half of them — fans joked that he had “a sprained World Cup”, i.e. that he was saving himself for South Africa. Sevilla are a medium-sized club, and don’t carry nearly the clout of Brazil. This is not simply a matter of the player’s sentimental attachment, but of a cold reading of money and power politics within the global game.

One key reason Brazil are likely to win this tournament is that its national team is a global football ‘brand’ that can compete with the world’s leading clubs. If the Brazilian football federation had no other job but to manage the national team — and it certainly doesn’t do much to ensure a healthy domestic scene — it would be plenty busy and plenty well remunerated arranging friendly games and selling merchandise in almost every country on earth. Before the World Cup started Zimbabwe paid heavily to be able to give its hungry people the ultimate football ‘circus’, a playing visit from the Brazil team. Brazil may or may not be the best soccer team on the planet — several European club sides might challenge it for that title — but it can occasionally play the Harlem Globetrotters role of being the sport’s traveling show.

Brazil also benefits, like the other South American teams, from an onerous qualifying schedule that gives ample chance for team-building. Whereas European national teams typically gather for two or three days at a time to prepare for and play qualifying matches, generally eight or 10 of them over about 16 months, South American qualifying involves 18 games, for which top players often fly home to the continent from Europe for a run or two or more games over the space of a week. Even Maradona, who nearly made a mess of qualifying and had trouble settling on his best team and formation, presumably used this process to build team spirit. (Argentina, however, may be the best example of how love and enthusiasm in these few precious weeks — look at the coach singing before games and kissing all his players — can turn a group of players into a team.)

At any rate, given Brazil’s special advantages and the ones enjoyed by other teams from the same continent, the success of South American teams in South Africa is no coincidence. Nor is that of Germany, where the soccer federation has crucial independence from the league and has made the development of players at youth level a high priority. Elsewhere in Europe, the combination of TV multinationals and money-laundering investors with deep pockets has turned the top levels of the club game into a non-stop circus, and national teams don’t have a hope of competing with those clubs for cash, prestige and organizational effort. After this rather embarrassing World Cup, European national football could have further to fall.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of CounterPunch’s Hammered by the Irish. Contact harry.browne@gmail.com




Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne