Brazil’s elimination from the World Cup in the quarter-finals at the hands of Belgium meant that all South American teams had been knocked out of the world’s most prestigious competition before the semi-finals.
Europe’s top-four sweep meant that it was the fifth time that the continent had captured all four semi-finalist spots in the 21 editions of the World Cup. The first instance occurred pre-war in 1938. The last time that Europe held the World Cup in 2006, no South American teams had managed to make the last four.
In fact, all five World Cups where the South Americans had gone missing at the business end of the tournament – 1934 (Italy), 1966 (England), 1982 (Spain), 2006 (Germany) and 2018 (Russia) – have been held in Europe.
Over-reliance on star players
But the more concerning fact is that no South American team has won the World Cup since 2002 and things don’t look rosy at all for any of the giants of world football.
Pele in 1958 and Diego Maradona in 1986 starred for their respective teams in World Cup victories and their performances may have prompted South American teams into thinking that star players could carry them over the line every single time.
Even in 2018, Brazil and Argentina saw an unhealthy reliance on big names, thereby limiting the influence of others around the pitch. Lionel Messi and Neymar are just two in a long line of Albiceleste and Selecao players who have shouldered the burden of imbalanced teams.
Jorge Sampaoli’s unwillingness to introduce Ever Banega to supplement Messi’s creative abilities underscored an approach that centred around the Barcelona forward. To think Messi could do it all by himself in an era where every team has access to statistical data and information belies a sense of a superstar culture.
Messi’s former club-mate Neymar had a torrid time in Russia, falling and whining while really not hitting the heights expected of Brazil’s number one player. Yet, the five-time champions added to the notion of dependency by bringing out Neymar shirts before the semi-final in 2014, which they would go on to lose 1-7 in his and Thiago Silva’s absence.
Iceland showed that with organisation and defensive ability, all the glittering attacking riches of Argentina could be stopped dead in their tracks. Sweden, who made it to the knock-outs without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, looked rigid but played to the team’s, and not one man’s, strengths to make it to the quarter-finals.
Uruguay missed Edinson Cavani in their defeat to France but Luis Suarez and the midfield should have had enough to create a single clear-cut chance which never fell Los Charruas’ way. The lack of a plan B saw almost no penetration as Umtiti and Varane stopped the first World Cup champions dead in their tracks.
James Rodriguez’s injury meant that the Colombian superstar was missing in action against England. Rodriguez and the rest of the attacking quartet of Juan Quintero, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado had torn Poland apart, yet the remaining three looked toothless without the 2014 Golden Boot winner.
A sense of entitlement and rigidity in style
With the onset of globalisation and laws such as the Bosman transfer regulations, the gap between the heavyweights of football and the also-rans has significantly reduced. Croatia in the semi-finals, Sweden, and even hosts Russia in the quarters, are signs that smaller European teams are using the knowledge available to them to outwit better, technically superior opponents.
Croatia is the best example – grinding out 120 minutes in both the Round of 16 and the quarter-finals against Denmark and Russia but beating a hapless Argentina 3-0 in the group stage – of a team that can both contain and excel in attack but most importantly adapt when required.
Brazil’s and Argentina’s refusal to move from expansive to closed, or from rigid to flowy, styles make them easier teams to study. Sampaoli did use close to 50 players for Argentina during the qualification campaign but that didn’t alter their central strategy.
It wasn’t just Neymar that Brazil depended on. Tite could not move from Gabriel Jesus, an Olympic gold winner and a prodigy who had a poor tournament, to Douglas Costa, who looked more lively on the pitch and provided natural width. Roberto Firmino’s limited game-time also meant that Brazil were unwilling to try out a different system.
Argentina playing only one friendly prior to the tournament also showcased a deep sense of entitlement, a feeling that the two-time champions could turn and become a tournament team. Germany, the 2014 champions, adopted a similar line of thinking and it did not end well for them either. Power of will or legacy can not substitute preparedness and thoroughness prior to a major tournament.
League and youth re-structuring
Oscar Tabarez is known as ‘El Maestro’ in his country not just because of his stint with the national team, but also because of his overhauling of the entire youth system in Uruguay.
Surprisingly, La Celeste is the only one of the South American countries which has completely revamped its under-age football structure recently, with others like Argentina struggling in this aspect.
Tabarez’s work with the country’s Under-20, U-17 and U-15 teams congregating at one place and a lot of focus on these three age groups has yielded its tangible rewards. A fourth-placed finish in the 2010 World Cup, a Copa America win in 2011, a second place at the U20 World Cup in 2013, to go with a fourth-place in 2017 and a win at the U-20 South American Championships in 2017, are fantastic achievements for a population of 3.5 million.
Argentina’s ageing squad and a lack of quality defenders after the retirements of Juan Pablo Sorin, Javier Zanetti, Gabriel Heinze and Roberto Ayala meant that Javier Mascherano was their most complete defender at the age of 34.
A dried up production line can also be co-related to the fact that neither Brazil nor Argentina are able to retain the best talent in their leagues, giving them time and space to develop. Many players, who are expected to have great careers end up as journeyman across countries and even continents, unable to settle in and perform at their respective clubs.
Fear for Argentina
While Brazil still have a talented crop of players and Uruguay’s next generation look set to take flight, the ones that really must be worried are Argentina, who look at a bleak future without the continued efforts of one Leo Messi.
A corrupt FA, a sham of a top league involving 30 teams and a bloated friendly schedule due to the money-making ways of the association, added to an ever-reducing pool of top-end players could see the Argentina team in bad shape for the 2022 World Cup and beyond.
This is the same Argentina side that won consecutive golds at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, and reached three major finals between 2014 and 2016, only to lose them all.
An expansion to a 48-nation World Cup may see further threat to the South American way of football, with more Japans rising up to face the likes of Colombia and Chile. Change is the need of the hour, but Russia 2018 may not still convince the stakeholders.