There was a time when international tournaments, or even international friendlies, served as the great meeting of minds – a conglomeration of different cultures and traditions, a chance to pit your wits against the unknown, to exchange ideas and to be exposed to a completely new style of playing. Uruguay’s completely unexpected defeat of Brazil at the Maracana in 1950, Hungary’s stunning 7-3 sweep of England in 1953, Pele’s introduction to the world stage at the 1958 World Cup, Garrincha’s stunning 1962 tournament, Argentina in 1986, among many others.
With the emergence of television and the internet, this is not the case anymore. Everyone, from Asia to South America, can access the attributes of each team by the click of a button. The Guardian has an entire page dedicated to this – click on a team and the entire roster shows up with every player’s strengths and weaknesses clearly defined. National football lags well behind club football, both in terms of tactical acumen and the viewer’s interests. The time and understanding it takes to build a deadly unit is unfortunately not available to international coaches, they have to make do with the 10 days they are given in between the club season.
Because of the lack of time to develop sophisticated systems, most of the football on show at international level is soporific and uninspiring. Coaches, under severe pressure already from both fans and directors alike, prefer to keep a more rigid structure. When they don’t, when they fall in the trap of patriotism, like Luiz Felipe Scolari did at the Estádio Mineirão in the last World Cup (Brazil 1-7 Germany, in case you were living under a rock and missed it), it can leave an indelible stain in the careers of both the coach and the players. As Jonathan Wilson (that of the magnificent ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ tactical encyclopaedia) rightly pointed out, coaches prefer to build from the back and with a more conservative outlook.
There are sometimes teams who can come together and build a strong unit – like the Spain side from 2008-2012 and Chile at last year’s Copa America but these are exceptions rather than the norm. Chile had a coach who took over from the previous one and did not change a thing, except the intensity of the team’s pressing. So when the same squad, who had been playing together for a prolonged period, found its rhythm, they were irresistible. Spain simply had a lot players playing at the same club so that level of understanding helped first Luis Aragones and then Vicenete Del Bosque to shape them into a monster side.
Take the currently ongoing Copa America, for example. In the first week, a paltry 14 goals were scored across 8 games (involving 2 goalless draws and 2 1-0 wins). That’s an average of 1.75 goals a game. The last European Championships, held in 2012, offered a measly 2.45 goals per game. The two before that? 2.48. Just to put things into context, the last Premier League season had an average of 2.72 goals per game.
With the current tournament expanding to 24 teams, the minnows, the teams who would likely not have qualified for the tournament in its previous format, will set up a huge defensive wall and ask the stronger team to breach them if they can. In the current format, even three draws might be enough to take a team through to the knockout phase since the best third placed teams will go through as well.
Another huge reason, and this nothing can be done about, is the lack of playing resources a coach has on offer. Unlike at club level, you can’t sign players and are often left with players already burning out for a huge club season. Teams who often channel their attacks (and indeed, their hopes) on one creative outlet – Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal, Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Sweden, Gareth Bale for Wales, Marek Hamšík for Slovakia, just to name a few – are often left with nothing to offer if the player has an off day or is injured.
Having poured over all sorts of tactical guides offered by blogs and magazines world over, there are hardly any surprises left for the fans to fawn over. Iceland, who have the potential to be the dark horses at this year’s tournament, were somewhat of an unknown but a stellar qualifying campaign left their entire rise to success exposed to the whole world. Now you can read about them on pretty much every respected football blog, from their tactics to their behind the scenes meteoric rise.
All signs point to this being yet another defensive tournament. There might be a surprise or two from the minnows, but don’t expect any team to light up the tournament. Since drawing games might well be enough in the group stages, teams are unlikely to go all guns blazing. Here’s hoping for an exciting tournament, anyway.