Euro 2012 has started well – and shows every sign of finishing even better.
Such optimism is grounded on the idea that the dead wood has been cut away. We have said goodbye to the type of teams that clutter up a tournament – the ones who refuse to take responsibility for the spectacle, the wait-and-hope merchants, cowering away behind their two banks of four.
The striking thing about the quarterfinals was the ease with which the four favorites were able to impose their quality on the game. Granted, Italy was taken to penalties by England, but only because of some wayward finishing. The most patriotic Englishman would have to admit that his team was outclassed. True, Portugal beat the Czech Republic by only a single goal, but it is hard to recall the Czechs having a single chance. And Germany and Spain won at a canter. Thus, the semifinals take shape without a single surprise.
How different from the action last year in South America’s equivalent tournament, the Copa America. Following its fourth place in the 2010 World Cup, Uruguay wasn't really a surprise winner. But few expected it to get past host Argentina in the quarterfinal – and indeed, it was Lionel Messi & Co. who spent most of the game on the front foot, with Uruguay happy to hold on for the penalty shootout.
Indeed, one of the defining aspects of the 2011 Copa America was that the favorites were defeated in all four quarterfinals. Brazil also fell on penalties after being held to a goalless draw by Paraguay. Colombia, which had looked impressive in the group stages, went down 2-0 in extra time to Peru, and attacking, dynamic Chile went down 2-1 to Venezuela.
Other than the perverse machinations of the gods of football, what explanation can be found for this extraordinary difference between the two competitions?
Conditions must surely take some of the blame. The Copa America was played in the often brutal Argentine midwinter, and given that chasing after the ball is much more tiring than stroking it around in possession, the cold weather was a godsend to the underdogs, allowing them to run and harry without being worn down by the heat.
The quality of pitches was also a factor. The playing surface at La Plata, where Brazil fell to Paraguay, was appalling – not only small, but full of sand that had been colored green to hide its presence. Some of the other pitches were bumpy – and the worse the pitch, the more the advantage of the better team is removed.
And there is another key distinction. Euro 2012 marks the end of a process, whereas the Copa America was the beginning of a new cycle.
Since the last World Cup, the European teams have spent two years planning and preparing for the action in Poland and Ukraine. They played a series of qualifying matches and then honed their squads with some warm-up friendlies, all geared to getting things right during this tournament. And then once Euro 2012 is over, they will all begin – with new coaches in some cases – to build for the next World Cup in 2014. A new cycle; the current one ends on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Copa America is an entirely different animal. It has no qualifying games. It is not the end of anything. Rather it is the beginning of the buildup to the World Cup. For an entire year after South Africa 2010, there was no serious business for the South American sides. New coaches were brought in, fresh sides were timidly constructed and lucrative friendlies took place all over the world. The Copa represented the first competitive matches of this new cycle and of course, the teams all wanted to win the trophy. But the competition was not really an end in itself. It was a chance to prepare teams for the next set of World Cup qualifiers that kicked off a couple of months later.
This meant that teams did not head to Argentina in a complete state of readiness. The hosts, for example, under coach Sergio Batista had been trying to implement a kind of "Buenos Aires Barcelona" with its playing style a tribute to the Catalan giants. There had been some promising signs in the friendlies, but the more serious examination of competitive matches soon revealed that it was not working and Batista was forced to rethink his lineup in midtournament.
Brazil came with a young side, full of players already building big reputations in domestic soccer who quickly saw that the international game presented a more difficult challenge. Coach Mano Menezes has since talked of how hard his young bucks found it. Accustomed to the Brazilian game, where defensive lines lie deep and there is space on the field to pick up possession and define the move, they had problems against more compact opponents. In other words, the Copa was an important part of their learning curve.
All this means that Brazil, Argentina – and the other qualifiers from the continent – are likely to be much stronger in the World Cup, especially with the tournament returning to South America for the first time since 1978. It also seems clear that the ultracompetitive nature of contemporary World Cup qualification is also good preparation for a World Cup. Uruguay, which reached the last four in South Africa, made it through as only the fifth-place team in South America and needed a playoff against Costa Rica to book its place. Indeed, one explanation for the upsets in the 2011 Copa America quarterfinals must surely be that these days there are simply no minnows left in the continent. The gaps between strong and weak have narrowed.
In Europe, meanwhile, they seem to have widened. The Czechs and the English were playing World Cup finals long before Spain. Now, though, there is not the slightest comparison between the quality of play produced by their national teams. Soccer looks like such a simple game when played by the Spanish, yet fiendishly complicated in those rare moments when the English had possession of the ball against Italy.
Perhaps the key to these differences lies in responses to the globalization of the game. The major European leagues these days contain players from all over the world, which means there are fewer opportunities for native players. But those who receive them are getting a global education, measuring their skills against the world’s best on a weekly basis.
In such a globalized context, it isn't easy for a national team to retain and cultivate an identity or a collective idea of play that underpins everything the players do on the field. Spain has it, having successfully incorporated the old Dutch model into its footballing DNA. At the under-17 and under-20 levels, the Spanish are consistently producing players with the technical skills and tactical understanding to play possession-based football. Germany has it, or rather recaptured it during an important spell as coach by the highly intelligent Jurgen Klinsmann. His starting point was this question of identity. His conclusion was that Germany had to be an aggressive, in-your-face team, and in recent years the country has been producing the kind of players good and bold enough to put words into deeds.
The past two World Cups have shown that if many of the European teams are depressingly mediocre, the best are outstanding. That message has been reinforced by Euro 2012, which leaves a fascinating question dangling on the way to the next World Cup. How will the best of Europe fare on South American soil in 2014?