So, that festival of the boot is on again, and although since I moved to Europe my interest in soccer has waned considerably[1], I still watch the World Cup quite avidly. Of the 6 European soccer giants – Spain, Italy, Germany, England, France and Holland – only 4 made it to the round of 16, and in that round already another – England – has been knocked out in a match they lost 4-1 to a German team that beat Australia 4-0. This is the same England team that struggled to get through the group stage. The two finalists from 2006 went out in the group stage, and in such an ignominious fashion as hardly befits European minnows, let alone France or Italy. Italy was beaten comprehensively by Slovakia and only drew with tiny New Zealand after pulling a penalty with traditional Italian diving methods[2].

I noticed that the three European giants who have bombed so far all have quite old players. Italy and England particularly, but even France still has players like Thierry Henry. Holland has also been playing a little poorly – they really struggled against Japan – and they also have quite a few holdouts from previous cups. On the other hand, Germany has a very young team. This article in the Guardian makes the point that this is not a coincidence, and that the Germans have been putting a lot of work into developing local talent. It’s also the first German team to be representative of Germany’s multicultural modernity, with 5 or 6 players being of Arab/Turkish/Eastern European/latin American origin. I take this as a sign that the German FA has been searching far and wide for talent.

So what is with the old teams that bombed? I think that these three countries – the UK, France, Italy – have opened their football markets simultaneously[4] to easy foreign transfers and massive television marketing money in the last 20 years, and the consequence of this has been an easy-come-easy-go attitude by the clubs. Instead of doing the hard work of developing local talent, they’ve taken the low-risk approach of buying in talent from abroad. This makes FA Premier league games fun to watch, but it has had the dual effect of a) importing players from smaller countries and giving them exposure to world-class coaching and playing techniques and b) reducing the pool of talented local players. The consequence of this at the world cup is that these countries’ national teams not only have to select their line-up from a shallower pool of talent, and thus rely increasingly on has-beens like Rooney; but they also find themselves facing a wider pool of nations with quality players who have been groomed by these big football nations’ leagues. New Zealand, for example, has a line up whose entire transfer value was  a third that of one player on the Italian team (de Rossi, I think). They had one player from Blackburn in defense, another player from an English team in midfield, and another in offense, and they assembled around this spine a team that included several amateurs. In 1982 their team was entirely composed of amateurs. So while the available quality for NZ has increased considerably, England and Italy find themselves relying increasingly on old men, and in the washup of last night’s defeat the press are also claiming that the young players aren’t so great.

Make no mistake, this is good for football. Having an increasingly diverse pool of finals contenders, with 2 Asian teams through to the round of 16 (and one a favourite, I note, to go to the quarters!), an African team through to the quarters, and a selection of latin American teams, is good. But from the point of view of the football giants of Europe, something has gone wrong. Compare the British approach to football with the Australian or NZ approach to rugby. If a NZ player ever plays for a foreign club, they can never again play for NZ. So even though the foreign clubs pay vast sums more than the local clubs, NZ players wait until their world cup hopes are over before heading overseas – after their (shameful) 2008 World Cup loss, a whole stack of players who knew they wouldn’t be selected again headed to French and British clubs to earn the real money. As a result of this the All Blacks have players lined up 3 deep for most positions, and the lead players can’t guarantee selection in the next game if they don’t keep their act together – and this is the stated policy of the NZRB[5].

This should also be the case for the European soccer giants. There is no way that in a nation obsessed with football, as England is, a 30-something second-rate striker like Rooney should be able to even get in the squad, let alone onto the pitch. There should be a 28 year old and a couple of youngsters ahead of him – the same for Lampard, Cole, etc. Beckham stayed in long past his prime, and was a crap captain to boot. I think this is a result of market forces operating in England, and although one should rightly observe that although these market forces have had a good effect on the rest of the world game (and on the viewing public’s enjoyment of football), the British FA needs to think about some countervailing mechanisms to groom up a new generation of English players.

I suppose it could be argued that the Italian problem is not so much an effect of broadcast TV as the general corrupt and moribund nature of Italian institutions. But I think that Italy and France have similar broadcast models to the UK, and I wonder if the Northern European countries have (as is traditional up there) opted for a more genuinely social democratic approach to the game, that strikes a balance between the market model of “buy the best team you can” and the long-term good of the game. Because football is notable for its intense nationalism, I think that the long-term good of the game and national success are inextricably linked, as you can see from the excitement about soccer that is stirred up in rugby countries (like Australia) when we have international success. It strikes me as interesting that some of the European countries with the most intensely nationalistic fans – Italy and the UK – have managed to somehow water down their own national teams in a way that pours cold water on that nationalism. Transferring that national allegiance to clubs is not going to be  a good thing for social order at local soccer grounds, and the game isn’t going to maintain its populist appeal if it loses its nationalist appeal (not that it will ever be unpopular – soccer is a very very good game to play and to watch). But Associations like the FA have an important role to play in fostering local talent, otherwise why have them? And I’m sure there must be more than a few people in England and Italy and France this week thinking “why do we bother with an FA at all?” when their national teams perform so badly, their local leagues are essentially deregulated in every significant particular, and the FA doesn’t even properly monitor on-pitch referee or player behaviour.

The Italian captain made a comment last week to the effect that not beating NZ would be like the All Blacks failing to beat Italy in rugby. It’s noticeable that recently Italy have beaten England at Twickenham, and the IRB is moving to include Argentina in the Tri Nations. I wonder if this week a lot of Italian soccer fans are thinking of teaching themselves the rules of rugby, and diversifying their football interests? If Australians can do it[6], so can Italians.

fn1: Football culture in England (and probably much of Europe) is a horrible, macho and nationalist display of male tribal bonding that I just can’t get behind or support. From afar in Australia the Champions league was fun to watch, but in England it feels like you are participating in a form of ritualized abuse. The complete and total exclusion of women from all aspects of the sport, the hyper-macho posturing of the fans, their sudden exaggerated Englishness, it’s all horrible, as is the tense atmosphere the football areas, the armies of police, the dogs, the chanting aggressive dimwits wandering around in dangerous gangs, the implicit acceptance of this phenomenon as a side-effect of the game that has to be tolerated in order to enjoy its limited benefits. And, of course, there is the gender divide – with women thoroughly and completely uninterested and excluded. If you’re wondering why British women are so thoroughly unsporty, you don’t need to look any further than the crowd of a British football match, completely and utterly devoid of women. To people from outside Europe – or people from a rugby tradition inside Britain, for that matter – this all looks very strange.

fn2: Note as well that Italy had a particularly easy run, being drawn in a weak group and being given amazing referee favouritism – in their final game against Slovakia with 10 minutes to go their two strikers attacked the Slovakian keeper, kicking him and punching him, and the Slovakian keeper received a yellow card. The whole thing was caught on camera too – if it were Aussie Rules Football or Rugby those two men would have been sent packing immediately; and this came after another unprovoked attack in the first half. Italy should have finished that game with an 8 man team and a much less flattering scoreline[3].

fn3: In case you hadn’t noticed, I really hate the Italian national team. I have done ever since they beat Australia in the 2006 quarter finals with a shocking piece of diving. The sooner FIFA accepts the inevitable and introduces video refereeing and summary execution for diving, the better.

fn4: After that British player won a case in the European court, a case which ended up not benefiting him at all but completely changed the face of European football.

fn5: On a side note, I don’t much go in for the complaints of some in the British press that the English players are paid so much that they don’t care whether they win or lose internationally – I think they care very much, although I do think that injury-wise they probably assign their first loyalty to the club that pays them so much. But Southern hemisphere codes have a salary cap, which I think does have the consequence of reducing the prima donna element of player behaviour, and preventing the players form influencing the selectors as much. I also wonder if the greater respect rugby players show the referee compared to soccer has anything to do with their relative pay grades. At a rough guess, an Aussie football player is paid maybe 5 times as much as a referee, while an English star would be paid 50 times as much as a referee. Obviously institutional factors are the main driver of this, particularly the post-match judgements made in rugby which mean that you can’t just argue your way out of trouble on-pitch. But surely that pay grade differential makes a difference to on-pitch behaviour. As an example of down-to-earthness, when I did weights at the University of New South Wales I spotted bench press for a professsional rugby league player, who was doing rehabilitation weights during the summer break[7] in between contracts, before heading to Europe to play with a French team. I somehow doubt that your average premier league player ever has the misfortune of having to share training space with us mere mortals, let alone having a non-professional human being assist them with their weights.

fn6: Australia has 4 codes of football that we divide our attention between, and we’ve been world champions in three of them.

fn7: “rehabilitation weights” for a dislocated shoulder in this case meant doing 85-100kg bench press sets of 12, with clap push ups in between and 30 second rests; followed by dumbbell flies with 35 kg on each shoulder, and more clap push ups. The man himself probably weighed 100kg. That’s some rehabilitation!