Not such a New World (Cup) Order
The predictions of success for African teams and of triumph for Latin America’s ‘beautiful game’ were based on fantasy football politics.
So what has happened to the World Cup ‘revolution’? Before the tournament in South Africa began, we were assured by many that this would be the World Cup when everything changed, with new forces in football emerging to challenge the established order. There was even heady talk of African football finally making the long-promised breakthrough.
Then during the first three weeks of the tournament, all the talk was of the new wave of the beautiful game from Latin America sweeping away the rotten remains of European football (the only team from Europe given a serious chance were the stylish Spanish, treated as honorary Latin Americans). On the eve of the quarter-finals it seemed to be widely assumed that Latin America would provide three semi-finalists in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and possibly all four if Paraguay could rise to the occasion against Spain. Europe was treated almost as an also-ran.
In the event there were certainly embarrassing early casualties among Europe’s former world champions: both of the 2006 finalists, Italy and France, finished bottom of their groups while England failed to fulfill their ‘destiny’ as one of nature’s quarter-finalists. But many of the other bold predictions look more like an exercise in fantasy football politics.
The African teams, led by the hosts, were thoroughly exposed in the group stages. Only one, Ghana, got through to the knock-out rounds and made it to the quarter-finals (equalling the best-ever achievement of any side from Africa) thanks largely to a soft draw.
The European teams, who clearly had not been reading the script written by overexcited pundits, emerged victorious over the Latin Americans in all three quarter finals they contested: the Netherlands beat Brazil, Germany hammered Argentina, and Spain stumbled past Paraguay. The single Latin American team to make it through to the semis were the unfancied and unbeautiful Uruguayans, who beat Ghana with the aid of a mini Hand of God controversy and a penalty shoot-out.
Three European semi-finalists may represent a step backwards since the last World Cup in Germany, when all four came from the continent, but not much of one.
Yes, much has changed in this World Cup: we may well get a first-time winner, in Spain or the Netherlands, and it seems almost certain that a European team will win the tournament outside their own continent for the first time in the World Cup’s 80-year history. But these were not the sort of changes being shouted about until last weekend.
Much of it was wishful thinking and fantasy football. There is a slightly self-loathing assumption among many European pundits that all beautiful football must come from ‘over there’, embodied in the saccharine media cult of the Brazilian ‘samba boys’. Admittedly this has some basis in the fact that Brazil has won the World Cup five times in the past, and produced some of the finest teams ever seen. But like all prejudices, it also blinded some observers to the reality of the current more prosaic and vulnerable Brazil.
Then there was the patronising crap about the lovely smiley dancing Africans and their ‘pulsating’ football culture, which has been dealt with before on spiked, and was particularly to the fore in the toe-curling commentary around Ghana’s eventual loss to Uruguay. No doubt this encouraged many to ignore the real deep-seated problems in African national football. When Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo appeared in a report on the rise of African coaches, and asserted that ‘black Africa’ needs foreign coaches because the indigenous ones often ask players for bribes before selecting them, the BBC men were so embarrassed by his off-message outburst that they acted as if it had not happened.
For some it seems there is also a wider sort of wishful thinking in all this, an indulgence in fantasy football politics. It is as if they hope that the World Cup might somehow deliver the equality of nations that the real world remains stubbornly resistant to, with the ‘dark continent’ of Africa emerging into the light and newly developing nations challenging the old world as they are in other areas.
But Planet Football is not really the real world. As yet the World Cup is still dominated by the traditional powers of Europe and Latin America, each group having won it nine times to date. And at this World Cup, despite all their problems, the European powers retain the upper hand.
Of course, trends in the real world and Planet Football do overlap. We can see the emergence of the new Asian powers of South Korea and Japan at the World Cup, no doubt soon to be followed by China – although as Duleep Allirajah has pointed out, this has less to do with any stereotypical Asian industriousness than with the fact that they can really play. The old Eastern European football powers such as Hungary, the Soviet Union/Russia and Poland are absent, while the new republics of Slovenia and Slovakia have done relatively well.
Yet old Western Europe remains at the centre of Planet Football despite its Euro-crisis and declining power in the world. It has the tradition and organisation, alongside the flair of Spain and the rapier thrusts of Germany. The European Champions’ League is by far the richest and most important club competition on earth. It is striking how many of the ‘beautiful’ Latin American footballers such as Lionel Messi now ply their trade in Europe – and how, as Roque Santa Cruz of Manchester City and Paraguay observed last week, many of the South American teams are now coached and organised along more ‘European’ lines.
One exception that has been noted, however, is the relatively poor performances by many players from the English Premier League (EPL) at this World Cup. It was not only the English players who flopped, but the big EPL names from other countries too. How many of them feature in the four teams remaining? Apart from the workmanlike Dirk Kuyt of Liverpool and Holland, the only EPL stars still standing are Robin Van Persie of Arsenal and the Netherlands, along with Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal and Liverpool’s Fernando Torres, both of Spain. All three have been bit-part players for their national teams so far – it remains uncertain how many of them will be Premier League players next season anyway. Further proof perhaps that the EPL, the ‘world’s favourite league’, is as poor quality as some of us have argued for a couple of years?
What other major conclusions about the world can we draw from the World Cup? Not many really. If Brazil or Argentina had won, it would no more signal a change in the real world pecking order than Europe’s success means a throwback triumph for the ‘white race’. One thing we might be tempted to suggest is that the apparent supremacy of European football, at a time when the EU is such a stultifying influence on freedom and life, could explain the dullness of many games. But then along come the dynamic risk-defying German team to blow that one out of the water too. It’s only football in the end.
We might have enjoyed watching the Ghanaians celebrating their win over the Americans, the crowds in the streets shouting to the cameras ‘What has the US got? Nothing, only money! We have football!’. But it is still a pretty poor substitute for something more substantial.
As one who is always for radical change, but has no time for fantasy football or fantasy politics, I see little evidence of a global revolution as yet on Planet Football. I noted at the start of the World Cup that only six countries had contested the previous 10 finals. Two of them – Germany and the Netherlands – are still in the semis, and on current form it would not be surprising if the old firm were to have the final to itself again. Indeed I find myself forced to support the boring old Germans as the team of the tournament to date, far more than any of the fantasy football nominations of a week or two ago. The financial crisis of the Eurozone may yet impact on the Champions League. But this week, on Planet Football, it is still Euro-boom time.
Unless, of course, Uruguay overthrow all of the old empires….
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked. He will be writing on the World Cup for the next week.
Read more at spiked issue Sport.