By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (July 27, 2012) US Soccer Players – Almost as soon as it was obvious that Brazil would be the host for the 2014 World Cup, speculation arose as to how one of the best teams in the world would adequately prepare. As the thinking went, lack of meaningful games in the form of World Cup Qualifiers would be detrimental for Brazil. When a World Cup host is also one of the world’s elite teams, they need games that count. Like Germany before them, hosting the Confederations Cup might not be enough to turn a heavy favorite into a finalist.
You might remember in 2005 that Germany beat Australia and Tunisia, and tied Argentina to lose in the semifinals to Brazil. Nobody will confuse a short-run tournament with the crucible of qualifying. That includes FIFA, who has no mechanism to stop a World Cup host with a schedule full of friendlies from sliding down the ranking table. Brazil is 11th, the lowest ranking in their history, and a direct result of stacking their schedule with friendlies while other teams are playing tournament and qualifying games.
More important than rankings is the idea that Brazil won’t be able to test their eventual World Cup squad. Brazil is in a highly public transition period, and those players need games that count. Enter the 2012 Olympics, an opportunity for Brazil to get those games with their young squad. As the thinking goes, Brazil can use the Olympics and next summer’s Confederations Cup to substitute for the lack of Qualifiers. Considering that there will be other teams that have both of those tournaments and a qualifying schedule to figure out their squad, what it does in theory is lessen a disadvantage. In practice? The Olympic soccer tournament might not be the place to find out much of anything.
Consider the case of Team GB, the abbreviated name for the British combination that is supposed to make this tournament their own. Playing Olympic soccer for the first time, the British men’s squad is supposed to show what uniting the home countries of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can mean competitively. What they’re not supposed to accomplish is enough of a mandate that FIFA begins to wonder why these four countries have separate governing bodies and senior national teams. As it stands, what Team GB is demonstrating is the All-Star problem.
All-Star teams aren’t meant to play real live squads, groups of players that know each other and their tactics in the heat of meaningful competition. All-Star teams are supposed to play each other, taking away the advantage of familiarity. Sure, you can stake and All-Star team with players from the same club to give it some shape, and in broadest terms there’s not a whole lot of difference between how clubs prepare. That keeps All-Star games from turning into farce, but it’s different when only one team is chosen from many.
Major League Soccer’s All-Stars did a job earlier this week, producing a late winner to beat Chelsea. It was a moment to make MLS proud – players, administrators, and fans alike. The big boys showed up, and they lost to a team that had 48 hours to prepare. Win or lose, it’s easy enough to dismiss an All-Star moment, but it takes nothing away from what MLS accomplished. In a game where 10 substitutes were allowed and Chelsea went with their backup goalkeepers, MLS was a goal better. Surprising, to be sure, but not beyond the realm of reasonable.
In large part, Team GB is trying to overturn a combination of the Brazil and All-Star problems. They didn’t have to qualify for the Olympics, that’s the host’s right. Europe uses their Under-21 championship to determine who represents UEFA in the Olympics, and England didn’t even make it out of their group. The rest of the home countries didn’t even qualify, which is why so much importance was placed on choosing the squad’s three over-age players.
A conversation centered around picking Ryan Giggs and not picking David Beckham overlooks the obvious. The best chance of putting together a spine for Team GB was familiarity through a centralizing player. There’s a strong argument that Giggs and Beckham would’ve been better than Giggs or Beckham, forming that illusory core. Instead, it became a team dominated by English players from a variety of Premier League clubs. The Great Britain squad ended up being England plus five Welsh players. Welsh club Swansea City provided more members of the squad than any other club, and one of those players was English.
Those choices produced the All-Star problem. Whatever familiarity a group of Under-23 Premier League players might have has turned into the type of team that struggles against seasoned opponents. With that in mind, becoming another date on Brazil’s calendar of friendlies probably wasn’t the best idea. Team GB got shutout by Brazil’s senior squad 2-0 in what was their only training game in front of a paying crowd. You know, the type of setting they should expect at Olympic level, even if the level of opponent was significantly higher.
On Thursday, Team GB gave up a 1-0 lead to Senegal, opening the tournament at Old Trafford with a 1-1 draw. Though this could end up being a blip as the team gels and turns into a real force in this tournament, turning three points into one speaks to a lack of meaningful games and the lack of familiarity. It’s a schedule and squad problem that asks too much of any team caught in either scenario.
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