Changing places: Football’s quiet revolution

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As excitement over Euro2004 reaches fever pitch, the tournament’s past masters shouldn’t be surprised lesser-known teams are suddenly getting serious…

The headlines remarked excitedly upon “Germany’s shock exit” from Euro 2004. In the preceding days the footballing obituaries of Italy and Spain, two more ex-superpowers, had been written.

Their places in the quarter-finals of Europe’s elite international competition had been taken by Greece, Sweden, Denmark and the Czech Republic, surely mere squires to the sun kings of European football?

But is the head-shaking and finger-pointing in Berlin, Madrid and Rome the result of a bad tournament and errors or is it the sign of a change in the balance of power in European and world football?

Spaniards, Italians and Germans can claim to have the best domestic leagues in the world but is their presence in a major tournament or even its qualifying group still enough for ‘lesser’ nations merely to roll out the red carpet and present their superiors with victories and progression into the final stages?

This year’s quarter finals still contain reliable old faces: the footballing royalty of France, the artisans of Holland, the entertainers of Portugal and the warriors of England (up until Thursday night).

The qualifying records of the French and, to a lesser extent, the English are impressive but elsewhere the elite nations have had their cloaks robbed from their backs by swashbuckling marauders from the former Soviet Union and Scandinavia.

Italy, the home of style and chic were put in danger of being made distinctly B-list after losing to Wales and drawing with Serbia and Yugoslavia in the qualifiers.

Spain contrived to lose to the Greeks and failing to score against Northern Ireland and Germany could only draw with Iceland, one of the least fashionable places in Europe.

The last World Cup seemed to represent as near to footballing anarchy as you could get. Senegal beating France signalled the revolution.

The ancient regime crumbled when Argentina, Italy and Portugal were thrown out by semi-finalists South Korea, third place Turkey and the USA, a place where football is played with a rugby ball.

Order was eventually restored with a final between Brazil and Germany, but battle scars had been left.

What most people have overlooked is that globalisation – which allows Coca Cola to be advertised in Vanuatu and has provided a steady stream of exotic footballing arrivals into the top clubs in Europe – has taught the formerly ‘out of the loop’ countries a thing or two about how to be successful.

The surprise at Latvia not being sunk by a cricket score every game is misplaced because they will have been able to see on television how successful Premier League sides organise a defence or look on the internet to see how France have developed an academy.

The natural spirit for football in these nations is no longer disorganised enthusiasm but as more inhabitants experience European club football in the more established countries they bring more ideas into their national team training sessions.

As more coaches from the established nations impart their ideas to their indigenous colleagues, the result is an organised and passionate national team ready to punish those who fail to recognise them as such – as the Portuguese hosts found to their displeasure in their opener against Greece this year.

So the old cliché "There’s no such thing as an easy game in international football" is becoming increasingly true.

Why on earth shouldn’t the Czech Republic have an excellent chance of winning Euro 2004 or why should Morocco represent an easy game for anyone?

Obviously San Marino’s forward line would not have given Sven Goran Eriksson too many headaches and the prospects for American Samoa’s appearance in a World Cup still look remote but it can no longer be taken for granted that the World Cup will only reside in South America and Western Europe.

What price, then, for a Lithuanian European Championship win in 2020?