Euro 2004 seems determined to throw up a shock every day, with France becoming the latest ‘big’ side to be surprisingly eliminated after losing 1-0 to Greece last night. They join Italy, Spain, Germany and England in the club of pre-tournament favourites wondering just what went wrong. I can think of a couple of reasons that may help to explain just why this has been such a bad tournament for the big countries, similarly to the last World Cup, and why this might be the start of a new trend in world football, not just a short-term blip.
The first reason is one that many commentators noted before the tournament began – that many of the big name players have played a lot of football over the past season and are just tired out at the end of it. What with national league games, Champions League matches, internationals and other competitions, it’s a rarity for a top player from any league to have played less than 50 matches in a year (England’s Frank Lampard had played almost seventy matches during the season, for instance) whereas the players from smaller nations, playing for less successful clubs have played less matches and are thus much fresher.
At best, though, this is only a partial explanation – fatigue affects different players in different ways and amounts. Lampard, for instance, was one of England’s more energetic players throughout the tournament. What I think is more important is where they were playing those games.
One factor that unites most of the ‘big’ teams, and has for a long time, is that the vast majority of their players ply their trade within their own country (France are the main exception to this, with very few of their players playing in France). Almost all of the English, Spanish, German and Italian squads play in their own countries and for a number of years it’s been a rare time when more than a handful of their top players have been playing abroad.
Meanwhile, the ‘smaller’ nations have their players scattered all over Europe (and sometimes even the world). France, of course, fit into this group as well, and while it doesn’t help to explain their current lack of success, it’s worth remembering that from 1998 until that defeat by Senegal in the 2002 World Cup they were generally regarded as the best team in the world – ahead of Brazil, another country noted for exporting its players all round the world.
So, why should this be a benefit to the ‘smaller’ nations? I think there are two main benefits. First, it means that when national squads come together, there’s going to be an air of a special occasion, with the diaspora of players brought together to serve a national cause, not just another gathering with the same players you’re playing either with or against week in, week out.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it means the squad has a wider knowledge of the different styles of football played acorss the continent. Yes, all teams have great scouting apparatus and the top sides regularly clash in the Champions League and UEFA Cup, but I don’t think that’s the same as actually playing in that country, absorbing that style of play, knowing your opponents and being able to tell your national team mates what to expect.
It’s often been asserted that allowing so many foreign players into national leagues is weakening national sides. While there may be some truth in this, it’s more because there’s no balance in the player imports and exports. If more players from the larger nations were playing abroad, then they might be able to reassert their position on the world stage.
Update: An additional reason has just occured to me, somewhat connexted to the second one. Call it the ‘shop window effect’ – players from smaller countries want to do well in big tournaments as it can earn them a big money move to a larger club in one of the big countries. Those players already at the big clubs, though, don’t have the same pressure to prove themselves as they’ve already made their reputations. This could account for the problems France have faced recently.
Via Matt, this page makes a similar suggestion regarding players going abroad, and has statistics that show teams with around 50% of their players based outside their home country have been quite succesful in the last three major tournaments.