World Cup: When giants stumble

Five of the world's biggest soccer salaries are paid to English players—and now they're eliminated? The answer may lie in the tension between club and national teams.

Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Note: this article was published in Maclean’s magazine before Sunday’s game, in which England was eliminated after being defeated by Germany.

The old cliché of soccer as “the world’s game” is only half-right. Everybody plays soccer, that much is true.

The business of the game, however, belongs to a handful of elite European sides who own and control most of the world’s best players and provide the majority of the world’s most exciting games. Even during the World Cup and the Euro Cup, when soccer as business appears to be replaced, momentarily, with furies of unbridled patriotism, the influence of club football is never far away, continually affecting the action of the national teams. The two may seem like separate but not necessarily opposed loyalties. You cheer for your club during the regular season and then you cheer for your country during the tournaments. But the antagonism of the two modes of football is actually quite ferocious. Club football brings down international football and international football makes a mockery of club football.

The global nature of European football clubs, the colossal sums of money involved and the intense devotion that these teams inspire are the heart of the difficulty. How can you cheer all year for players gathered, at enormous expense, from all over the world, often by a foreign owner, and then switch in the middle of summer to cheering for guys who happen to live around where you do? In 2005, the London club Arsenal did not have a single English starter on its side, earning it the sobriquet L’Arsenal. This is not just football’s problem. Jerry Seinfeld described the condition of watching the sports teams of the modern era, with players from everywhere, as “cheering for laundry.” The passion is unfortunately no less severe than it used to be.

The most devoted Arsenal soccer fan I know—an otherwise reasonable man—cares so intensely about his team’s performances that he will watch major games without being able to bring himself to look at them for long stretches. He will just sit with his head in his hands, not watching the game. Nick Hornby, the author of Fever Pitch and the Robert Parker of sports fans’ agony, wrote an infamous essay during the 2006 World Cup about how he found himself torn between loyalty to club or country. His favourite club players all played for France.

In England, particularly, club football seems completely disconnected with international competition. Week in, week out, the English Premier League provides some of the most dazzling football available, and then in tournaments England stumbles from failure to failure. Five of the world’s top 20 football salaries belong to English players, and yet England failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and, at the current tournament, stands somewhere in between the merely adequate and the outright embarrassing. Even their best games have been soporific. All those highly paid English players were unable to defeat the Algerians, who do not have a single player earning a top 50 salary. David Beckham is the icon of this club-glorying, country-shaming English football generation. Throughout his career, he has been one of the best-paid players in the world and never delivered in a world competition. His value, clearly, is not his football skills, but his English good looks, his fashion-forward style, his semi-glamorous, ultra-thin wife, and his clueless but nonetheless real charm. The entire English team is overvalued because of their marketability to English clubs as Englishmen. The World Cup is a month-long debunking of this marketing scam.

Is it perhaps the secret of the South American teams that their best players don’t play in the domestic leagues? Is their consistent international triumph down to the fact that players like Messi and Kaka don’t play for the teams they supported as children but for big-paying Spanish sides? One explanation for Italy’s triumph in 2006 was the catastrophic implosion of their domestic leagues due to corruption. The argument is unproveable but tantalizingly credible. Usually, an Italian manager has to take into account the various powers-that-be within the great Italian clubs and select star players from all the teams. With the shutdown of all those internecine negotiations, so the argument goes, the national team could just pick the best players.

For decades, a similar argument explained the underperformance of Spain in international competition. The rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid was so intense that the players couldn’t get along when they were all on the same side. Even worse, the Barcelona players would not play well if a Real Madrid coach was leading the team, and vice versa. Now all that has changed. Spain entered the World Cup as one the favourites, champions of Europe. Why? What has changed is that Spanish players do not necessarily play for the two major Spanish clubs now. Fernando Torres plays for Liverpool. Cesc Fabregas plays for Arsenal. Spain is a case where globalization has helped the national side. It only makes sense: if soccer is the world’s game, then the best teams, even national ones, have to come from the whole world.