In recent years, I spent considerably less hours watching football then in I had before. Once I finished my studies, the intensity in my life had increased considerably and I no longer found the time to watch matches from esoteric leagues worldwide. My weekly football dosage has reduced to following each Barcelona match religiously, as well as the biggest matches from the top leagues and the Champions League. In turn, this has made the two big football tournaments – the World Cup and the European championship – so much more fun for me. It brings me back the nostalgic feeling of seating for hours straight, watching football and knowing all the details like a well-taught scholar.
Two weeks and a group-stage into the tournament, the thing I feel the most is the growing gap between club and national team football. Admittedly, I do not watch enough football nowadays to make a definite statement. My sample of European club football is heavily based on unarguably one of the strongest football sides ever seen. And yet, perhaps this just makes this point much clearer.
The major national tournaments used to bring together scattered stars into fresh, interesting teams. Sometimes it would make a super-team, and sometimes a gray collection of players; all depending on the current crop of this countries football academies. Despite the earlier conclusion, I do not think the squads of clubs are vastly superior to those of national teams nowadays. Both have their weaknesses, and national teams have produced pairings of stars which were impossible (or at least highly unlikely) in the clubs landscape, such as Ramos-Pique or Özil-Muller.
The European clubs have entered the era of super-professionalism. There is a universal rise in the level of training techniques and attention to details. The fine art of designing a football team has never been so thoroughly analyzed. The old method of simply letting the manager pick a line-up and tactics has been dropped in favour of a holistic view of the team as a whole. The professional team surrounding the club has expanded, and the techniques have become more scientific. This is mostly noticeable in the big clubs, but the smaller ones are following suit and it will continue like this in the upcoming years.
There is no way for national teams to keep up with this. It is impossible to employ such methods without near-complete professional control over the squad. The preparation period for the European Championship is nowhere near enough; the truly great teams take years to build.
This results in a very enjoyable Euro 2012 so far. Except for perhaps Germany, no team demonstrates real dominance over another. In almost every match there were minutes of momentum for both sides and it is easy to imagine the 90 minutes ending with the opposite result if this-or-that shot would have flown a little bit differently. I felt this when watching Germany as well. They surely look the most impressive so far, but they did not provide the same feeling as Barcelona and Real Madrid in the last seasons. They sure can play and exploit the opponent’s mistakes, but can they impose themselves on the game? Can they create a wave of pressure by will? Do they have enough flexibility and depth to change in mid-match if their initial plans fall apart? This is the level we have gotten used to in the Champions League, the true standard-bearer of quality football.
This gap is not a bad thing. The Euro and the World Cup are rare celebrations of football. The distance from clubs’ football adds to the romanticism surrounding football. In a sports world full of mythology, it does well to balance against the gallop into the scientific age of football.
Because, after all, this is what football is about.
P.S. A few random bullets:
- A full group stage without a scoreless draw.
- A full group stage without a scored penalty (and only one missed).
- Iniesta is simply amazing, but Del Bosque’s team is so poorly built. Somebody has to score.
- France will win it.