Monday, 7 July 2014

International Football's Changing Face

By Shane Thomas

One of the major narrative threads to come from this World Cup (given that much of the media refuse to acknowledge how the tournament is hurting part of Brazil's population) is how many of the more heralded nations have been below their best. As the business end of the competition begins, the four nations in the semi-finals have been inconsistent in terms of dominance.

What's interesting about the criticism is that for different reasons, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and the Netherlands aren't only considered to have been below par, but are also playing in a style that isn't in the traditions of their respective countries.

The current Brazil team have been a way short of providing watching audiences with o jogo bonito. There has been a heavy reliance on Neymar to produce the devil to break down defences, while the supporting cast around him have largely underperformed thus far. Neymar apart, Brazil's top goalscorer in the World Cup is defender, David Luiz.

And with Neymar now out of the rest of the tournament, Brazil have to either find a player (or players) to pick up the slack left by Neymar absence, or (a more likely scenario) they will have to grind out two more victories - maybe on penalties - if they are to exorcise the ghost of the Maracanazo.

While many words can - and have - been written about the motif of the less fancied teams giving a fright to more established names in the last 16, what's interesting is how the four sides in the semi-finals seem to have left their respective national media unimpressed.

Because this seems to go more than mediocre displays. Much of the criticism aimed towards The Netherlands isn't based solely on their fortuitous victories over Australia and Mexico, or needing a penalty shoot-out to see off a game Costa Rica.

Germany were on the  receiving end of criticism in the press for being taken to extra-time by Algeria. The stereotypical German virtues of efficiency and ruthlessness are less prevalent, as Die NationalMannSchaft are based around mobile attacking midfielders, false 9's, and strength through possession[1].

And while Lionel Messi has finally beginning the bend the narrative of a World Cup to his willthis picture humourously lampoons the Argentine strategy in Brazil. Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain have begun to come to the party, but Di Maria's injury, ruling him out of the rest of the competition could be as harmful to Argentina as Neymar's absence is to Brazil.

In the eyes of some, Louis Van Gaal hasn't got his team playing in a "Dutch" manner. He's eschewed playing a 4-3-3, opting to use five in defence, and tinkering with things as needs must. Their strategy is based largely around using the pace of Arjen Robben on the counter, best demonstrated when they sliced up Spain, and outsmarted Chile.

So Germany aren't playing like Germans, the Netherlands aren't being very Dutch, and the Brazilians aren't especially Brazilian.

But what does that even mean? There's no doubt that many successful football nations have developed certain trademark styles; South America is regarded as the home of flair, Northern Europe is seen as a site of hardworking industry, while Southern Europe is a land where technique is king.

But like national psyches, these features can change and evolve. It should come as little surprise in a time where technology has allowed a greater knowledge of things that were once unfamiliar, as well as the internet allowing greater ease of shared information, that the once dogmatic ways of a country's football would begin to change.

The aspect that many pundits seem to miss is that there's a link between the way international football has changed, and the way many nations have changed on a societal level. Pining for a methodology from days past is a futile exercise. Germany many not be playing like the Germans from the 1980's. But Germany isn't the same country that it was three decades ago.

The issue of immigration - as well as colonialism - remains a shadow that looms large. Especially for the more powerful European nations. Not only Germany and the Netherlands, but France, Belgium, and even Italy are showing how a mix of cultures in a country can have a ripple effect on its football.

Are journalists maligning the respective nation's performances partly because it's not the football that they grew up with as fans? While racism and xenophobia may not be at play, it doesn't seem a world away from the person who bemoans how their country's now "full of foreigners". Why should football be immune from changes occurring in the rest of the world?

Being an Arsenal fan, I've seen first hand how much a footballing philosophy can change over a generation. If you decry that your country isn't keeping to its footballing principles, it probably means you're at the wrong point in time in this conversation.

Don't think the Netherlands are playing the Dutch way? Give it a few years. They may turn out to be as Oranje as it gets.

[1] - Although their 1-0 quarter-final victory over France came straight out of the (West) German mid-1980's playbook.

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