ST. PETERSBURG — For Uruguayan coach and soccer sage Óscar Tabárez, this story really isn't much of a story.
“Don’t ask me something that is self-evident. I think there are other things that are worth commenting on,” he said following La Celeste’s round-of-16 loss to France.
The question, from a Bolivian journalist, was about what had gone wrong with South American soccer. Why was the continent that had produced Pelé and Messi, Uruguay’s garra charrúa and Brazil’s joga bonito—and which as recently as 2002 had won more World Cups than Europe—now struggling to contend at the very highest level? Why were European teams on the verge of an unprecedented fourth straight title?
Tabárez correctly pointed out that Brazil remained alive at the time, and insisted, “We can’t take this match today as a point of reference.”
A few hours later, however, Brazil was out—defeated by Belgium, a small European nation whose best World Cup was a fourth-place finish back in 1986.
The big picture, for those looking for one, was best summed up by the well-known Spanish daily, Diario AS. A few days after its front page lamented “El Fin De Una Generación”—the end of a generation—AS trumpeted sustained hegemony. La Furia Roja were out. But Europe remained dominant.
“EUROMUNDIAL” was the one-word headline superimposed over a picture of dejected Brazilian players.
The World Cup is European. Again.
In part, this is a story about sample size. When does a pattern emerge? Tabárez certainly was correct when he suggested that the 2-0 win by that specific French squad over that specific Uruguayan squad was emblematic only of the fact that France was better that day in Nizhny Novgorod. After all, La Celeste already had eliminated the reigning European champion, Portugal, in this World Cup’s second round. One game, team or tournament isn’t sufficient to create a trend. And if one of Brazil’s numerous second-half chances goes in against Belgium, perhaps we’re not even having this conversation.
But they didn’t, and so European rule has become one of the themes of the 21st World Cup here in Russia. When Brazil secured its fifth star in 2002, no continent (meaning, Europe or South America) had won more than two in a row. And Europe hadn’t claimed consecutive titles since Italy went back-to-back in the grainy, black-and-white days of 1934 and 1938.
But now, with France and Belgium (Wednesday in St. Petersburg) and Croatia and England (Thursday in Moscow) set for the semis, a UEFA country will be crowned world champion for the fourth straight time. And the fact that four nations will have built that streak is a testament to the continent’s depth. Since Brazil’s fifth title, European sides will have taken seven of the eight available spots in the World Cup final (Lionel Messi’s Argentina claimed the eighth after defeating the Netherlands on penalties four years ago), 13 of the past 16 semifinalists and 11 of 12 medals.
Yes, Europe gets more teams than each of the other five confederations. But its rate of advancement and success is higher than the 43.75% of the field it occupies. A continent’s World Cup allotment should be evaluated in part by the performance of the bottom teams, not the top, because any increase will come from there. And there’s no depth of talent and potential like the depth in UEFA. Among those 13 recent European semifinalists are nine nations. Over the past four tournaments, 16 European countries have advanced past the group stage. Some that aren’t good enough to qualify in one cycle may be primed for a deep run only four years later.
That ’02 World Cup won by Brazil looked like it might represent the turning of the page, staged as it was in the new football frontier of Japan and South Korea. France’s title defense began with a loss to Senegal, an African debutant. Seven non-UEFA nations qualified for the round of 16. And the quarterfinalists included Korea, Senegal and the USA. It appeared the olde world order was on the verge of subversion.
Instead, in hindsight, 2002 looks like an outlier, or maybe even a last hurrah. Europe has assumed control, with only the occasional foray by Brazil or Argentina threatening its dominance. It could be luck. It could mean nothing. It could be a temporary, self-sustaining trend sparked by internal competitive combustion that’ll inevitably wane or reverse, kind of like the NFC’s 13-year Super Bowl streak over the AFC that ended in the late ‘90s.
Or, it could be the result of a genuine evolution in the sport, a quasi-permanent seizure of the continental balance of power resulting from factors as diverse as player recruitment and movement, youth development and sport science, finance and marketing, or even coaching and tactics. The best clubs, leagues and players are in Europe, whether they were born there or not. And now the best national teams are as well.
When Tabárez brushed off the Bolivian reporter’s question, it wasn’t because it had no merit. It was because the answer was “self-evident.”
Said Tabárez, “You have said European football is stronger … and saying that, means ignoring football reality, from a financial point of view [and] from a historical point of view.”
Recent history certainly suggests that the global game has been reshaped by the money and power flowing to a narrowing number of leagues and clubs. At its apex, soccer is more elite than ever, even as the sport’s base expands. The global demand to watch these top teams on TV fuels massive rights and sponsorship fees. In the 2016-17 season alone, the 20 clubs in England’s Premier League produced revenue of around $6 billion. Money from continental competition pours in as well. UEFA estimated that next season’s Champions League, Europa League and Super Cup would generate around $3.8 billion. According to Deloitte, the sport’s top 20 clubs—all European—earned revenue in excess of $9 billion in 2016-17.
The last time a club from outside Europe finished in the top 30 of Deloitte’s revenue ranking was 2014 (No. 24 Corinthians).
A lot of that money is spent on stuff that improves domestic soccer, from coaching education and facilities to technology and nutrition. It’s all significant, and you’d have to think that eventually the investment shows on the field. Fans in North and South America, Africa and Asia want to watch Barcelona play Manchester City, and the money flows from their TV networks and corporate partners—essentially their own pockets—into European soccer, likely making the players developed by its clubs even better.
Wealth in general probably is a factor as well. Of the planet’s top 30 countries in GDP, 14 are European. Latin America, the only region that currently can challenge Europe’s footballing obsession and depth of talent, is home to three. On a per-capita basis, the highest-ranking Latin American country in 2017 was Chile, at 56.
Meanwhile, the top talent from outside Europe, especially from Latin America and Africa, is scouted, recruited and signed at increasingly younger ages. This obviously is a generalization, but perhaps there are enough players leaving non-European homes, and at an earlier age, to impact chemistry or tactical cohesion back with their senior national sides, which gather and play only intermittently. Even though European nations make up less than half the World Cup field, around 74% of the tournament’s rostered players are on the books at European clubs.
For example, Brazil’s 2002 winners featured 13 players from its domestic Serie A. This summer’s quarterfinalist had three. Tite’s Brazil was good enough to win it all, and three also is the number of domestic players on the Argentina team that came so close in 2014. That’s a reminder that none of these issues, on its own, comes close to a potential explanation. But maybe in combination, they paint an impressionist picture. It’s worth noting that African countries like Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ivory Coast have been loaded with players starring for clubs in quality European leagues, but there’s been next to no World Cup dividend. For some reason, talent flowing into Europe seems to benefit mostly Europe. Perhaps it raises the bar for domestic development as much as it helps those incoming foreigners, all while weakening imports’ connection with home ever so slightly.
None of these are definitive reasons. But to whatever extent Europe’s four straight World Cup titles constitute a trend, it seems that it may be partially fueled by these dynamics.
Another potential influence is tactics and style of play, which at a World Cup may shade toward the things at which more European sides stereotypically embrace. In short, defensive structure, set pieces and vigor are probably easier to implement in a few short weeks of national team training time than complex attacking patterns or individual game-breaking skill and flair. The fact that this has been the World Cup of the set piece, penalty kick and own goal is illustrative. There certainly have been South American sides with grit (see, Dunga), and tiki-taka powered Spain to a star in 2010 (although one could argue that pressing and possession are as much about defense as attacking). But we’re talking about a small shift in what works at the World Cup that might benefit European teams just enough to offer another slight nudge toward a title.
Possession hasn’t necessarily been helpful here in Russia. According to TruMedia Networks, the top six teams in average possession at this World Cup already have gone home. Interestingly, Croatia, England, France and Belgium rank 7th through 10th, respectively. Uruguay, the CONMEBOL side that held the ball the least, still stands 19th overall. Four years ago, Germany finished second in the possession standings at 60%, but none of the other semifinalists were in the top eight.
South American teams have more of the ball than European teams on average (53% to 50%) since Brazil won in 1994. And European sides appear to be more comfortable without it. Across the past nine tournaments, 10 UEFA teams have gotten out of their group with less than 45% possession. South American sides have managed that just twice. In short, apart from Spain’s legendary 2010 side, it’s going to be tough to “Olé” your way to the World Cup trophy. This tournament is just as likely to reward bare-bones soccer.
All of which may mean little when so many games are decided by such miniscule margins. Or, perhaps all of it, in concert, moves those margins just enough. Four straight is four straight, and 13 of 16 is 13 of 16. And so for some, like Tabárez, the definition of World Cup success may have shifted slightly as well.
“Today we have lost,” he said after falling to France. “But it seems the four games we won before this one are worth nothing. That’s not true. Today we played against opponents that were stronger than we were. We have to admit it and we have to congratulate them. That’s all we can do.
“And I think the world has seen what we have achieved,” he continued. “The world knows what we were able to do and they also know what kind of country we are. We’re a small country, and of course certain things are more difficult for us than for other countries like France or Germany or England.”