Two soccer traditions have jostled for supremacy over the 92-year history of the World Cup—the creative, spontaneous, individual-minded South American vs the regimented, strategic, team-oriented European. As of this writing, the models have mostly merged over time, but those involved in soccer on either continent still keep score. Ironically what is counted is not the number of great soccer players coming out of each geographic location, or in terms of topmost quality South America—with Pele, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, and Alfredo di Stefano—would rule supreme.
What has been used to keep score instead, is the number of World Cups won by nations on either continent, despite the fact that over the past four decades or more Europe (UEFA) has had almost three times as many berths reserved for each World Cup as South America (CONMEBOL). This year South America will be represented in Qatar by Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Ecuador (not Chile, Colombia, or Paraguay, to pick a few nations who would rank above several of Europe’s representatives). Europe’s representatives in Qatar will be France, Holland, Poland, Germany, Spain, Serbia, Switzerland, England, Wales, Denmark, Belgium, Croatia, and Portugal. That is a 13-4 advantage this time around.
Europe has won twelve World Cups—1934, 1938, 1954, 1966, 1974, 1982, 1990, 1998, 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018, while South America has won nine—1930, 1950, 1958, 1962, 1970, 1978,1986, 1994, 2002, The fact that there was a back and forth rhythm for many years which was broken when Europe won the last three consecutively has come to be understood as more of a financial chasm—the ability to finance more clubs with better players, to ensure top level longevity and stability and to buy more and better coaches, equipment, and technology, rather than representing a differentiation along the lines of dominating via stylistic proclivities.
So, let’s talk style instead—or at least what each continent prides itself on.
Take a look at the Magical Magyars or the Real Madrid of the early 1950s and you see a bunch of technically gifted offensive players carving defenses up with perfect passing, great dribbling, and very accurate shooting, resulting in devastating score lines. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s one sees mostly a seesaw battle between Italian Catenaccio and its derivatives and Dutch Total Football and its derivatives, played by bigger and more physical players, and, oh, yes, the score lines shrunk.
From 1998-2006 you see a loosening of the duopoly and an experimentation with stylistic mixes or alternatives and a mostly maintained lower score line. And then came high-pressing and possession Tiki-taka which has dominated to one degree or another until today and has led to even smaller score lines with the occasional exponentially explosive result (Russia’s final France 4-2 Croatia or 2020 Euro’s Spain 5-3 Croatia).
What is interesting to note is that when you see the Brazil teams of 1958, 1962, and 1970 what you see is an up-tempo game where a lot of passing and key interceptions in the opponent’s half lead to prolonged possessions (Tiki-taka, anyone?), and at key moments players seem to be in different positions from where they lined up at kick-off (Total Football, y’all?), and for a continent with smaller statured men those three cup-winning teams were pretty similarly sized to their European counterparts.
But of course, that possession was not tiki-taka-ish since it was more purposeful, efficient, and fruitful—Brazil scored 16 goals in six games in 1958 (2.67 goals per game average), 14 goals in six games in 1962 (2.33), and 19 goals in six games in 1970 (3.17). Similarly, the physical stamina needed to play the constantly changing positions required both a total-football mentality and training and finally, of course, that differentiating, abundant, and individualistic scoring flair.
Now we are in 2022 and if the pundits are right and Brazil wins the World Cup Europe will still be two cups ahead in the continental divide. What to make of it? The bottom line is that what differentiates ultimate World Cup success is increasingly economics while the way soccer is played in Europe today (fast, strategic, high-pressing, possession) is pretty much the same as how it is played in South America. What remains to differentiate the regional style is the proclivity born of a century plus of socialization around the ball in each continent.
In Europe, the team reigns exclusively over the player and when one stands out pundits and fans alike enjoy bringing him down. It is Manchester City and Pep Guardiola’s system which wins trophies not Kevin de Bruyne or Ilkay Gundogan. It is the Juventus traditions and Manchester United system that makes them successful not Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals. Spain won the 2008 Euro, 2010 World Cup, and 2012 Euro thanks to their tiki-taka, not Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Iker Casillas, or David Villa.
In South America the outlier is valued for his ability to stand out because in their culture everyone is trying to make his individual mark and thus a success story is doubly good—it shows reaching that objective is possible (giving poor but talented children hope) and it is the positive culmination of a hyper-competitive tussle which brings about the latest Darwin Nunez, Antony, Miguel Almiron, Raphinha, Gabriel Martinelli, Richarlison, Federico Valverde, and Luis Diaz, who all become hometown heroes.
But did you note all of the names mentioned in the previous paragraph while South American ply their trades in Europe—go figure! Talent is everywhere to behold in the global game, but South America still produces more talented individuals while Europe produces more cohesive teams. The three most successful South American teams at the World Cup are Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina—all individualistically-minded teams. The three most successful European teams have been Germany, Italy, and France—all team-oriented champions with a star or two thrown in for good measure.
For as long as finances rule, though, Europe will have the upper hand—but let’s not confuse money with style or economics with traditions, as each continent still feels the sport its own way, and the sport benefits from diversity and divergence of perceptions, as do most human activities.
Photo: Liverpool’s Luis Diaz v Real Madrid’s Casemiro, Shutterstock ID 2163558597, by ph.FAB