As a fine Uruguay are crowned the deserved Champions of the 2011 Copa América, the football world mourns the death of International Football after more than a century personifying on the pitch the hopes, dreams, culture and style of the nations it once represented.
Fans of the beautiful game have noticed over the past handful of years – but largely failed to publicly admit – that the major International tournaments generally leave us feeling nostalgic for the glory days of the past, rather than pride in the present. The poor performances, uninspired play, low scoring matches and most poignantly the early elimination of the tournament’s favorites – Brazil and Argentina from this year’s Copa América, erased once and for all the myth that the most beautiful and inspiring football is played at the National level.
With the onset of the truly global marketplace and the huge sums money now at play in the game, players of true quality – particularly from South America – make their exodus to the lucrative potential of European Club teams as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Commentators have long analyzed the disastrous effect this has had on the quality of play in the National leagues of South America, which now serve as, at best, the minor leagues for top European Clubs and increasingly often, as is or was the case for Robinho, Adriano, Verón, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and perhaps now even Carlos Tévez: halfway houses or final resting places for those South Americans unable or unwilling to acclimate to life in Europe.
The vast majority of National Teams’ players live their lives and play professionally in other countries, continents, cultures and languages and train together for only a few weeks per year. When they do arrive at major tournaments to play with their National sides, they arrive battered, bruised and exhausted from their professional seasons and can often be found preoccupied with questions of their fate for the coming year. Under these circumstances how can any National Team hope to aspire to consistent, cohesive play that naturally personifies the ethos of a nation?
World Cup holders Spain serve as a remarkable example. At first glance, the Spanish side seems to offer a striking counter to this argument: in the team that won the World Cup in 2010, 9 players played professionally in Spain. Perhaps the “Spanishness” of this “homegrown” team led to the necessary cohesiveness and grit that was able to conquer their adversaries. Further investigation debunks this attractive myth: of the 11 players fielded to win the 2010 World Cup for Spain, 7 played professionally for FC Barcelona, at the time holders of the 2008-2009 Champions League Cup, 2009 UEFA Super Cup, 2009 FIFA World Club Cup, 08-09 Spanish Championship, 08-09 Spanish Cup, and the 2009 and 2010 Spanish Super Cups. Indeed, one can definitively say that it wasn’t Spain and Vicente del Bosque that won the World Cup in 2010, but rather it was FC Barcelona and Pep Guardiola.
Argentina was the biggest disappointment in this year’s Copa América. Coach Sergio Batista has come under fire for their impotent performance and early elimination from the tournament. Argentina boasted a star-studded side that included the best player in the world in Lionel Messi, 3 players from FC Barcelona, 3 players from Real Madrid and 3 players from Inter Milan. Furious Argentine fans ask in disbelief, “How could Argentina fail with such a talented team?” Precisely because their team was composed of such far-flung and disparate talent, achieving success as a team in such a short time frame was in fact impossible. To try and address this fundamental problem, Batista clownishly mimicked the strategy of the best club team in the world, Messi’s Barcelona, and failed miserably. In the end, who can blame him for trying?
To their credit Uruguay proved themselves to be one of the most dangerous National sides in the world, with their stars Luis Suárez and Diego Forlán stepping up when the time called and leading their side to a well-earned 15th Copa América title. Nevertheless, the fact that Paraguay was able to skulk into the Final having managed to not win a single game in the tournament and that Uruguay’s run of 2 (two) strong tournament showings in a row (they finished 4th in the 2010 World Cup) makes them stand out among their neighbors Argentina and Brazil as heavyweight contenders underlines the current pathetic state of affairs in the world of International Football.
Of course, the vacuous rhetoric of players claiming that “the honor of wearing their country’s colors will always remain their first true love and priority” will remain the talking points of every interview and press conference – but these professionals know very well which side their bread is buttered on and where their true priority must lie. And who can blame them?
Truth be told, true fans of top quality, inspired and beautiful play will, from here on out, stop fantasizing over long-gone glory-days of Brazil’s Samba-style and Argentina’s clever and streetwise porteño flair and will instead look strictly to European Club Football and the UEFA Champions League as their source of pride and entertainment. International Football: Rest in Peace.