Argentina are world champions and Europe’s hold on the title is finally broken! A triumph for South American football? Yes, but with restrictions, doubts and concerns.
Argentinian fans have succeeded in transforming the Lusail stadium in Qatar into a version of the Bombonera, the mythical stadium of Boca Juniors. The party in the stadium was so intense that it was unclear where the team finished and where the players started. Everything blended into a joyous mass. The occasion could hardly have been more Argentinian, more a celebration of the South American approach to the game.
But the players? Only one of them – reserve goalkeeper Franco Armani – plays for his football club in Argentina. It has become a familiar pattern. During the entire World Cup, only two South American-based players have managed to find the net – Uruguayan Giorgian De Arrascaeta (Flamengo, Brazil) and Costa Rican defender Juan Pablo Vargas (Millonarios, Colombia). The 2018 World Cup also had two scorers, up from five in 2014.
There’s no avoiding an alarming conclusion: whoever Qatar wins, the hard truth is that club football has become increasingly peripheral. The focus is on the other side of the Atlantic.
Lionel Messi has been presented with a guard of honor by his PSG team-mates on his return to training after winning the World Cup with Argentina.
Lionel Messi’s status in the Argentinian pantheon is now assured, but it hasn’t always been easy. Messi signed for Barcelona when he was 13 years old. There was an inevitable distance between Messi and his compatriots, who saw him more as a Catalan than one of their own. It’s a similar case for goalkeeper and now national hero Emiliano Martinez. A few years ago, however, he might have wandered the busiest street in Buenos Aires without the slightest prospect of being recognized. He joined Arsenal aged 18 and spent an entire decade learning his trade in the reserves or on loan. It took a very long time for Martinez to have a blast at Aston Villa and then become an Argentine sensation overnight.
The duo of midfielder Enzo Fernandez and striker Julian Alvarez combined to great effect during the World Cup campaign. Neither was in the starting lineup when the tournament began; both won, and Argentina’s second goal against Poland and the first against Croatia were the result of the agreement between the former River Plate teammates. Both also made strong debuts in their first European seasons, Fernandez with Benfica and Alvarez with Manchester City.
Such exceptional talent does not stay long in South America. European clubs want to sign promising players as soon as possible. Leave it too long and you worry that the player won’t be able to adapt to the faster and more intense style of play of the game at the highest level.
And North America is getting involved too. Young attacking midfielder Thiago Almada only made a brief appearance on the bench during the World Cup. Nevertheless, he made history. When the Atlanta United man took to the pitch, it was the first time a Major League Soccer player had represented Argentina at a World Cup. And the rise of MLS as a talent importer is a factor that has clearly weakened many South American leagues.
These trends are not limited to Argentina. The World Cup has shown how much they apply to South American football in general. Take a look at the Brazilian side. Key names like Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain) and Raphinha (Barcelona) have barely played at home, building their careers abroad. Vinicius Junior is a brief memory, leaving for Real Madrid at the age of 18. Ederson (Manchester City), Bremer (Internazionale), Fabinho (Liverpool), Gabriel Martinelli (Arsenal) – all were strangers to the millions of Brazilians. supporters who only follow the national match.
With its small population, Uruguay has long been accustomed to losing its best talent at a very young age. The country’s focus on the under-20s was designed with this in mind: to identify and build a long-term relationship with young people who will inevitably go abroad. And two members of the Uruguayan squad are based in MLS, along with four members of the squad that Ecuador brought to Qatar. Many other Ecuadorian players had only brief contact with first-team football at home before moving abroad. This is the case of Jeremy Sarmiento from Brighton, born in Spain and a former England junior international before choosing to represent Ecuador, the country of his parents’ birth.
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Sarmiento’s case is similar to that of many African World Cup players. The relatively strong African performance in Qatar (notably Morocco reaching the semi-finals) has clearly been helped by the process over the past two decades by which FIFA has made footballing nationality a more flexible affair. There were former young internationals from France, the Netherlands and Germany representing the countries of their families’ heritage. It can certainly be argued that Africa’s progress has more to do with players from the European diaspora than anything happening in the domestic leagues.
And in the same way, even if the soundtrack of the World Cup final and the emotion that carried the team to the title were 100% Argentinian, there is no doubt that Europe played a part in the triumph by helping the development of many players.