Sunday, 2 July 2006

I Won't Cry for You, England and Brazil - My World Cup 2006 Journal (Part 10)

Just being a bit too excited at the ouster of England and Brazil in the quarter-finals. These were exactly what I expected. The much-acclaimed English squad, the so-called "the strongest in at least 20 years", was flung in their face the ruthless reality that they know nothing about football other than defence. England's defence was undoubtedly among the best around the world, but football is a hunting game that means much more than defending your ivory tower. The inability of shooting the game means that you're poised for failure in the long-run. Luck always takes side with the stronger.

And now the spotlight is turned off on Brazil. For sure, no one would disagree that the Brazilian players are incredibly talented with unmatched proficiency in football skills. However, they failed to orchestrate a synergy that achieves more than the nominal adding sum of their strength. In the case of Brazil, one plus one should be more than two. But they did not do that. The team was in poor shape with internal conflicts and morale problems. Jealousy and mistrust overshadowed the whole team. Worse still, they had to play against the French whom they have not won over in the past 20 years. This is by no means any exaggeration. Veteran football fans shall remember the confrontation between Brazil and France in the Mexico World Cup in 1986. Beyond any doubt, it was truly a "centennial" game by nature as opposed to the largely exaggerated and flattering clashes that have also been labelled "centennial" in recent years. Anyway, the French-Brazilian encounter with Socrates, Branco, Careca, Josimar, Zico, Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Patrick Battiston and many others was a spectacular game that demonstrated the highest possible standard of football in history. It ended with a shootout that finally sent the Brazilians home in tears and despair.

Perhaps the 1998 encounter at the final in France would be more familiar to young football fans. The Brazilians, including the much-acclaimed Ronaldo, simply did not perform up to the standard their zealous fans had expected. The sweeping victory of France with three goals was understandably devastating. And it would not be any surprise for anyone to see that the Brazilians are still haunted by these painful memories.

The key take-away of England and Brazil's losses last night, however, should be something more strategic. As we watched the Portugal-England clash, my brother repeated his point that there is virtually no top-class striker in the English team. The high-scoring forward players in the English league are mostly foreign players from Europe and South America. Canada-born Owen Hargreaves has been the best performing player in the English team in this World Cup, but he is now playing at Bayern Munich with Michael Ballack. Wayne Rooney is a hot-tempered, impulsive bull with extremely low EQ at his best, despite all the compliments he has received from the veteran footballers. His misbehaviour that earned him a red card last night was yet again another proof of my brother's statement.

In any case, the absence of top-class strikers in the English team has been proved to prevent the nation from sustaining its glory in World Cup and other international tournaments. The import of football talents from other countries has not helped raising the standard of football in England.

Interestingly, Brazil's problem is just to the opposite. For generations, it has been a Godsend for Brazil to be the hotbed for grooming top-class footballers, who are then purchased by wealthy football clubs around the world, and, more notably, Europe. Yet it seems that their national league is incomparable to its European counterparts at least in terms of publicity. Players from the national league are often invisible in the national line-up. When the top Brazilian players return and play for their homeland, however, their thirst of personal glory has gradually replaced the common goal of pursuing national pride and sustaining the reputation of Brazil as the kingdom of football. This is especially true when it comes to this World Cup, as shown in the countless news coverage about the alleged personal conflicts among individual players. Brazil, as a major exporter of talented football players, is now facing an emerging crisis of not necessarily talent drainage but the embarrassment of lacking a synergy among the world's top players that may, at some point, cost its global leadership in football.

A summary of European hegemony in football will provide a sharp contrast that helps illustrate the point. The four European powers that have made their way into the semi-finals all have world-class national leagues. But their leagues are characterised by a heavy reliance on local players. Foreign players are of course welcome, but they seldom play a dominating role. Foreign players are expected to bring innovation and stimulus for reform and inspiration, but they are not meant to replace the indigenous players.

Striking a balance between local and foreign players is never easy. Dominance of either side would either sacrifice the opportunity for innovation and further improvement, as we have seen in the case of Brazil, or give up the grooming ground for talented local players when their positions are taken away by foreigners, as in the case of England.

Hong Kong has been following the example of England, and worse still, people are not as interested in local football as they are in overseas, top-class tournaments. I feel sorry for Hong Kong football, when I know that we have a glorious heritage, which has now been ignored or forgotten by most people of my age or the younger generations.

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