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Do We Ask Too Much Of Our International Sides?

Yesterday, I asked the question of implementing live video review in football. Today’s question is: are our expectations too high for international football? I enjoyed your responses to yesterday’s article. Please weigh in with your feelings on international football in the comment section below.

It is easy to hold one’s international side to an unfair ideal. On the international scene we want to see the same quality and resolve of the most successful league sides. And why not? A country’s top players are called up and collected, pulled from their various posts in the world to come together and represent their country as the best and brightest in footballing talent. Why shouldn’t England, the Netherlands and Spain have the same success, the same overstuffed trophy cabinets of Manchester United, AFC Ajax and Real Madrid?

These three countries have long been strong figures on the world stage and they’ve fielded some of the world’s best players. But success has often been elusive.

England have boasted the quality of Beckham, Shilton, Lineker, Owen, Barnes, Gascoigne, Shearer, Keegan, etc, yet they haven’t won the World Cup since 1966. They’ve never won the Euro. Doubly frustrating since England was the birthplace of the game as we know it today.

The Netherlands gave us Total Football (cue heavenly music). They seduced the world with Cruyff’s flowing grace and bottomless imagination, and his heirs—the likes of van Basten, Kluivert, Bergkamp, van Nistelrooy, Robben—have carried his ideals onward. Today, they have some of the best attacking players in the world. They won the Euro in 1988, but they’ve never won the World Cup.

These are two of the most confounding examples. But any national team can struggle to live up to the quality of the sum of its parts. Reigning World Cup champs Italy, have stumbled since 2006. They still burst with quality. But age has compromised their vitality. They had to sneak into Euro 2008 before bowing out to Spain on penalty kicks. They didn’t make it from the group stage of the Confederations Cup, losing to both Brazil and Egypt.

Spain may be the best team in the world now, but pre-2008 they were famous for promising starts before getting knocked out by the quarter-finals in the Euro and World Cup alike.

One problem is the international side can never build the deep chemistry of the top league club. They simply don’t have the time. Practices are limited and matches are squeezed into the gaps in league campaigns. If the league side is a player’s day job, his national team is the regional conference. He meets up with the top men from the other top companies, but how much can they really get done when they don’t work together every week? They practice when they can. They play friendlies to hone that competitive edge. But all the while the team is changing shape as different players hit their stride at the day job (or get injured onsite) the call-ups shift and the face of the team changes greatly in a short amount of time. Meanwhile the national manager haggles with league managers over who he can have, who he should rest, who he should sub off in the 60th minute. How does he get anything done with such parameters?

The other big issue is context. There is a huge disparity between the nature of league and international campaigns. A winning league club gets to bury the odd loss in a heap of good results in a long season. But since major international campaigns are built on group stages and knock-out fixtures, the best national team can be derailed by a loss or two. Spain tied Brazil’s 35-match unbeaten streak, but one loss to the US yesterday saw them knocked from the Confederations Cup. Similarly, the Dutch had an unbelievable record in the qualifying and group stages of the Euro, but Russia knocked them out 3-1 in the quarter-finals.

Ultimately, success on the international stage is built atop a foundation of skill and depth. But in the end what it really takes to capture the big prizes is a bit of magic. Spain are not the best team in the world because their players are better than Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney, Robben, Sneijder, van der Vaart, etc.. These are all world-class players as well. No, what pushed Spain over the edge into greatest team-dom was that they found that necessary spark at all the right times.  From Iker Casillas’s gravity defying saves to that instant when Torres broke through and broke German hearts with his single goal, Spain had enough magic moments to transform international side into club team. If you’d told me they played together everyday, I would have believed it in the summer of 2008. They started a fire that kept them going for 35 unbeaten matches. Despite loss to the US, they may well be able to keep the thing lit through 2010.

Overall, I think we set the bar of expectation higher than most international sides can handle. Given the circumstances working against them. But we are not about to lower it. We’d rather wait, praying our side can someday vault over our soaring  hopes.

Spain once made up the Triumvirate of Fruitless Promise along with England and the Dutch. But in 2008 they finally broke through to find success. The Three Lions and the Oranje will just have to keep trying and waiting for their own spark to flare up. That intersection where all the elements of skill, drive and luck come together at once. The miraculous goal goes in. The belief-defying save is made. That small bit of magic lifts the side at the perfect moment to see them sprint along the thin margin of error and claim all the glory.

Of course, as an American, I’m just hoping the USA can lose more beautifully to Brazil in the final on Sunday—barring a South African upset today, which I’d take—than they did in the group stage. If they want to defy belief agian that’s fine too. But I’m not sure how many miracles they’ll be allowed in one competition.

Now that I’ve gotten started on the Dutch, my thinking wanders to the influence Ajax and the Oranje had in the 1970s (and beyond). Tomorrow’s question: What Does The Dream of Total Football Mean Today?

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  1. Lyle

    June 27, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    Yes, we do. Especially the England fans and media. Oh my god are their expectations profane.

    England fan and media problems:

    1.) Their past was never that great
    2.) England is a small country (Brazil and Germany are more populated than England and love football just as much)
    3.) Foreign players aren’t the problem, English players are
    4.) Foreign players aren’t responsible for English players being English players
    5.) Denmark and Greece, when they won the European Championship didn’t have all their players playing in their domestic leagues, some weren’t even starters… so domestic quotas won’t do you no good.
    6.) Everyone in the world plays football now and any given country only needs 14 or so decent players to be a succesful football side at any given tournament.

  2. Thomas

    June 26, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    I would disagree, arguably the best run we have made was in 2002. So that wouldn’t be the 90’s at all.

    I think this most recent win against Spain has finally put the pressure that the number 5 ranking put on the team before the 2006 WC. It’s also huge to get a win of this magnitude, as for many of the current players, this was the biggest win for the national team. Just showing that we can not only compete, but beat the best is huge.

    The addition of Jermain Jones is going to make execptations evne higher for the US. I know he’s not an international star, but he’ll walk in and instantly be one of the top 3-4 field players for us.

  3. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    June 26, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Great piece Ethan. The Dutch in particular tell us alot about this- they have arguably produced more footballing talent than any nation in the last 35 years yet have just Euro 88 to show for it.

    The last two games not withstanding, the USA has actually tended to regress as the individual talent of the players has improved. Now maybe the Egypt and Spain game bucks that trend or simply could be flukes, but as Phil Schoen and Adrian Healey both leading media pundits here in the US pointed out last week, the sum of the most individually talented US side ever is not equal to the sum of all parts of US sides from the 1990s.

  4. Ethan Armstrong

    June 26, 2009 at 9:30 am

    I enjoyed the contest as well. As a neutral pulling for South Africa I might describe it as a satisfying loss. Holding off Brazil for 88 min was significant and the players deserve to be applauded. That one save by Julio Cesar was phenomenal. As much a defining moment as Alves’s freekick.

    I was really hoping S. Africa could pull it off. It would have made a great addendum to this article. Also, another USA v Brazil contest will probably give me an ulcer.

    I like Carl’s and Thomas’s points about familiarity. I hadn’t pondered that in depth but it is an important consideration in regard to the problem of limited practice/game time for international sides.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Floridascouse

    June 26, 2009 at 8:52 am

    I think Thomas hit the nail on the head with his final comment, ‘second tier’ nations, at 85 mins would anybody have given Brazil the points on performance.
    Obviously Brazil have the superior individual footballing skills but the game is a team game and the individual stamina, athleticism, strength as well as talent on the day can overcome the superior skill set with sheer determination and guts. Unfortunately for them SA came up short on the major skill required. Nevertheless it made for a very interesting contest and a worthwhile game to watch, as did the US on Wednesday, let’s hope the US can duplicate their performance on Sunday, we’ll all be cheering them on!

  6. Thomas

    June 25, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    I think this article is mostly spot on.

    Looking at the past winners of the two major tourneys (Euro and World Cup), I think it’s not a huge coincidence that there are several players that play with one another domestically, specifically in the midfield.

    Italy’s squad was entirely based in Serie A. You’ve got many players who play with or against each other with great regularity.

    Similarly, you have Spain, with Xavi and Iniesta coming with the creativity. I think it’s easier to plug a guy like Senna into that team, and have him effectively shield for players who are familiar with each other.

    The best point made in your article was definitely looking at the limited amount of fixtures and room for error on the international stage. As you pointed out, you can cover up the odd bad result in league play, but not in the World Cup or the Euros. International play is, obviously, much more comparable to domestic cup competitions, where you see a team like Portsmouth making the unlikely run to winning the FA Cup, etc.

    Just look at the Champions League. Man U took care of business all the way to the final. Then they faced a stern test in Barcelona and lost. Had the result gone the other way, people wouldn’t have been shocked. I honestly think that when you look at International competitions, there isn’t too much to choose from between the top sides in the world (Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France, Germany, Netherlands). If any of those teams beat another in a one off, knock out round game, would it be that shocking?

    Football is a crazy game. Look at the US beating Spain. Even if you are playing well (which was the case for the Spaniards), you can still manage to lose game with a few momentary lapses in concentration.
    Not to mention, you have a horde of “second tier” nations in the field. These are also formidable sides, capable of pulling off the upsets.

  7. Carl

    June 25, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    I’d argue that Spain’s success drives from the fact that in Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta, and Alonso they have four relatively similar midfield creative engines. They do have all of their distinct ways of playing of course, but they are almost like interchangable parts in an assembly line: creative attackers with an impressive repertoire of passing. With such similar playing styles a constant in the midfield, the rest of the players are able to build off of their strengths.

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