Sunday, April 30, 2006

ATH: Europe At A Loss

In With the New
The stage is set: The world's greatest sporting event returns to Europe, whose traditional dominance is fast being eroded.
By Mark Starr, Newsweek International

May 8, 2006 issue - None of the 32 countries that qualified to play in next month's World Cup can boast of an especially easy path there. But the one that received an automatic berth—host nation Germany—seemed to suffer the most controversy and consternation. Its youthful team has played uninspired football, most notably in a 4-1 thrashing by Italy early this year, and rookie manager Jürgen Klinsmann has taken a beating, too. Klinsmann, star of three German Cup teams in the '90s, has been vilified for his nontraditional methods, sins compounded by his insistence on living in southern California. When he flew home to America right after the loss to Italy, no less a persona than Franz Beckenbauer, Germany's greatest football icon, pleaded for him to spend more time with his team. Instead critics had to settle for whatever solace could be found in a 4-1 victory over an American "B" squad. Klinsmann termed it an important win, permitting the team to proceed with preparations "in a much quieter atmosphere."

But football experts, both inside and outside Germany, believe that any calm may be of the before-the-storm variety. Starting June 9, Germany will be the center of the sporting universe. By the time the World Cup final is played in Berlin a month later, the games will

have been watched by 3.4 million spectators in stadiums in 12 cities and—according to estimates by FIFA, the sport's governing body—a worldwide television audience of 40 billion cumulative viewers. Many will tune in fully expecting Germany, the 2002 runner-up and winner in 1974, the last time it played host, to have a giant leg up on its fourth World Cup championship. To the eyes of most experts however, the Germans appear at best a long shot to finish on top—for reasons that should concern other traditional European football powers as well.

Just as America discovered with basketball and the demise of its recent Dream Teams, there is a new global game afoot—one that's been kicking up warning signs for years. In football's last seven Under-20 world championships, 14 South American teams and seven African teams have reached the semifinals, while only five European teams (including Spain three times) have made it that far. The emerging parity in the football world was certainly evident at the 2002 World Cup held in South Korea and Japan. For a refresher course, take a glance at these scores: Senegal 1, France 0; United States 3, Portugal 2; South Korea 2, Italy 1; Japan 2, Belgium 2.

True, this World Cup will be staged back in Europe, where the powers that be have always defended their turf relentlessly. Out of nine previous Cup competitions held in Europe, European teams have won eight (with Italy, England, Germany and France all triumphing as hosts). Only Brazil, in 1958 with a 17-year-old Pele debuting, managed to break Europe's home-field advantage. Those successes were abetted by the difficulties non-European players had adjusting to a distant pitch. As European leagues have stocked up on international talent—hundreds of Brazilians and Argentines now play there—distance has ceased to be an impediment. Cup qualifiers from all regions are led by players—Brazil's Ronaldinho, Argentina's Juan Román Riquelme, Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, Ghana's Michael Essien, South Korea's Park Ji-Sung —who have excelled in European competition.

The very best Latin and African players appear to be both faster and more creative. They can maintain possession of the ball for longer spells and are capable of dazzling bursts which can puncture that cautious and rugged defensive style European squads tend to play in the biggest competitions. With Europe's five elite leagues increasingly dependent on foreigners to fill critical roles, particularly on attack, homegrown development of players with those same capabilities has been stifled, inevitably damaging the national teams there. All that helps explain why many experts dismiss Germany—Europe's longtime über-power with its three World Cup titles and three Europeans—as a team in serious decline; in a recent poll of German sports enthusiasts, only 5 percent believe their team will prevail in Cup competition. "Our tactics and tempo are very antiquated," says Pit Gottschalk, editor of the sports weekly Sport Bild.

The idea that Europe has grown too complacent to succeed is widespread. By contrast, the growing prominence of Latin American and African players in Europe in part reflects the game's deep roots in poverty. "Maybe the long-term problem in European football is that economically we are producing a generation that has never had it so good," says Bill Gerrard, professor of sports finance at Britain's Leeds University Business School. Soccer tends to flourish in places where there are few material distractions, where "kick the ball" is still a compelling mantra and where football remains the surest passport to riches.

There are, of course, places like that in Europe. But Germany in particular has been slow to invest in its youth teams and even slower to tap its immigrant communities. Though Germany's Turkish population offers a huge talent pool, its best players return home to compete. The inertia on the part of the German football establishment has led to a conspicuous decline in the level of Bundesliga play; this year no German club even reached the quarterfinals of Europe's prestigious Champions League. "Bad, slow soccer," says Rainer Holzschuh, editor of Kicker, Germany's leading football weekly.

Germany doesn't need to look farther than its own neighbors for some better models. France, in its run-up to the '98 World Cup that it hosted, successfully integrated its immigrant and minority communities onto the team. What was a revolution on the field proved more successful than anyone in that country could have imagined. Not only did the team jell and produce France's first Cup championship, it also generated a rallying cry—one nation, one France—that provided an antidote (though sadly, as recent events have demonstrated, a temporary one) to the angst and alienation that the nation called la crise. The Dutch, too, altered their youth-development and recruitment policies, yielding talented minority players at the heart of the national team lineup.

Change is coming to Germany, too, albeit slowly. The host team's humiliating exit—without a win—from the 2004 European championships led to the call to hire Klinsmann, once a hero of the Fatherland. Yet his efforts at reform with modern methods—selecting players based on performance criteria rather than seniority or reputation, blood tests to check fitness levels—have distressed the German soccer establishment. It's hard to imagine another country in which fitness tests for players would prove so controversial. But that decision appalled many veteran German players and coaches who believe fitness is no substitute for mental toughness and experience. "Whoever starts reforming in Germany is made out to be the bogeyman," says Sport Bild's Gottschalk.

Many of Germany's most fervent fans believe Klinsmann is unilaterally surrendering the team's not-so-secret weapon, its indomitable will. They point to the 2002 World Cup when Germany was often outplayed yet reached the finals and made a match of it against a far more talented Brazil. English football columnist Rob Hughes says that no matter how great the will, it is no longer enough to carry the day. "It has been overtaken," he says, "by athleticism, technique and imagination." Klinsmann had all those as a player and is trying to instill them in an inexperienced team, Germany's youngest in 40 years. That may prove too great a task for too short a time. The best hope for German soccer is that the World Cup—be it an embarrassment or a stunning success—doesn't blunt a transformation that is long overdue.

With Stefan Theil, Ginanne Brownell and Sam Register

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