IT is meant to be a showcase for the world’s best footballers, but at times this year’s World Cup has left you wondering if anyone had told them.
Every tournament throws up undiscovered gems who all but the most anoraky of fans knew little of before kick-off. Mention Mesut Özil, Asamoah Gyan, Keisuke Honda, Fabio Coentrão and Robert Vittek a month ago and you would be met with a wall of blank faces, now they bring memories of goals or barnstorming performances.
But World Cups are also supposed to be the time when some of the planet’s best footballers confirm their greatness. One or two – Barcelona’s new signing David Villa and their talisman Lionel Messi – have enhanced their reputations but most have sullied them. Questions are starting to be asked as to whether Wayne Rooney – two World Cups, no goals – really is the “world-class” talent we thought. Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba and Robin van Persie have looked a shadow of themselves.
All four ply their trade in the Premier League. The tournament’s two most disappointing teams were England and France – picked from the squads with the most Premier League players. Ivory Coast were expected to carry African hopes if they could escape a tough group but did not.
Theirs was the third-biggest English-based contingent. Coincidence? Probably not.
The World Cup is in danger of losing its lustre. If it does, the Premier League must take its share of the blame.
Team England and its physios can say otherwise until they are blue in the face but physically Rooney was not the player who took the top-flight by storm until injury in March. Van Persie, Torres, Drogba, Nicklas Bendtner and Gareth Barry all looked like they had returned too early, while Germany’s Michael Ballack missed the tournament with ankle ligament damage.
There is no direct link between playing too often and being clattered by Kevin-Prince Boateng in an FA Cup final – but those in the know insist tired bodies are more susceptible to injury.
Of more concern to the Football Association should be the performance of an England squad staffed entirely by Premier League players. From egos to tactics, there were plenty of reasons why the Three Lions were little more than pussycats in South Africa.
But perhaps the most significant was the one Fabio Capello pointed straight to in the post-mortems when declaring in his broken English his players were “tie-red”.
Some would say it is an excuse which describes itself. But tiredness only gets trotted out with such depressing monotony because it is true. Yet no matter how sincere and angst-ridden the soul-searching, it always gets ignored in the end. Money talks and while fans keep paying to watch these matches and the men who collect the cash keep making decisions, footballers will continue to be bled dry today and to hell with tomorrow.
It is too simplistic to say the self-proclaimed “best league in the world” has ruined what should be football’s best competition.
Holland have four Premier League players in their squad. Some English-based stars have shone, notably Ghana’s Boateng. But compatriot John Pantsil missed most of Fulham’s exhausting campaign through injury, Paraguay’s Paulo da Silva was a fringe player at Sunderland and Landon Donovan only loaned to Everton for two months.
Uefa have over-cooked their golden goose, squeezing as many paydays as they can out of the Champions League and ludicrously elongated Europa League. Many other leagues – including the Spanish – play as often, but few if any can rival England’s intensity, as Sunderland’s former Dutch international Boudewijn Zenden – a former La Liga performer – attests.
“The English league is very physical,” he says. “Maybe, coming towards a tournament at the end of a long hard Premier League season of 60 or more games, there is nothing left.
“The players in Spain play the same number of games, but it is a different type of game. It’s slower and when you keep the ball, it is a lot easier.
“In England, there is a lot of energy needed to constantly win the ball back. English football is played so quickly and the ball goes back and forth, back and forth. It is tiring and I think that is a big part of why England keep failing.”
Still, this year the leading Spanish names have played more often than their English counterparts. Barcelona, the bedrock of the Spanish team, went further in the Champions League than any Premier League club at the end of a campaign which saw the World Club Cup and European Super Cup finals tacked onto their fixture list.
Spain have been playing non-stop since the summer of 2007, reaching the 2008 European Championship final and semi-finals of the Confederations Cup when they should have been resting.
It has taken effect. Vicente del Bosque’s team are comfortably the best on the planet but you would not know it from this tournament. They were beaten by Switzerland and have generally looked laboured.
It has affected their thinking, del Bosque playing two holding midfielders and pushing Xavi into a position where he is only extremely good rather than outstandingly brilliant out of concern for his jaded side.
Maybe we should be thanking the world football authorities for a handicap system which has provided a far more even contest than ought to have been the case. Perhaps greed is good after all.