Let’s start with a little intellectual exercise. A purely hypothetical, entirely subjective, ultimately inconclusive one, admittedly, but still: Now that each of the presumed contenders to win the European Championship has shown at least some of its hand, how competitive would any of them be if they were to be parachuted, as they are, into the Champions League?
Instinctively, it feels as if France, at least, would do pretty well. A front line of Antoine Griezmann, Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappé bears comparison to any attacking trident in the club game.
Paul Pogba and Adrien Rabiot contribute elegance, drive and imagination to the midfield. N’Golo Kanté, at this point in history, appears to be the key ingredient to any world-beating team. The defense is not quite so stellar, but Didier Deschamps has fashioned a miserly, obdurate back line around Raphaël Varane and Presnel Kimpembe, both proven performers among soccer’s elite. And besides, if either was found wanting, Deschamps has a wealth of replacements at his disposal.
On paper, then, France could be considered a contender, the sort of team that — with a fair wind — might be able to best Manchester City and Bayern Munich and Chelsea.
The only quibble is with style: For all its excess of talent, Deschamps’s France is an inherently reactive proposition, an approach that, by and large, has been rejected by the game’s leading clubs. (It is why José Mourinho, its high priest, is now at Roma, very much marooned in the second rank.)
France would, though, go much further than most of its rivals. Portugal (outplayed by Bayern Munich in the theoretical quarterfinals of this exercise) has the compact defense and the devastating attack, but its midfield is limited. Germany’s semi-coherent pressing style would be either overpowered by a smoother, slicker machine, or picked apart by a counterpuncher (knocked out by Liverpool in the last 16).
Portugal: a puncher’s chance against anyone thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo.Credit…Hugo Delgado/EPA, via Shutterstock
England (unfortunate early knockout defeat to Real Madrid) gives up too many chances, Belgium (dizzied by Manchester City) is too old, and a little too slow. Italy (stifled by Chelsea) has too little experience, the Netherlands (third in the group stage, behind RB Leipzig) too little class. Spain (dismantled by Borussia Dortmund) has Álvaro Morata up front.
There are, of course, valid reasons for these weaknesses, these comparative flaws. National teams cannot solve shortages in one specific position, or even a broad area of the field, by going out and buying someone to plug the gap. Their tactical systems are, necessarily, less sophisticated than those of the game’s best club sides because their coaches have so little time with their players.
And, of course, none of it actually matters. France will never have to play Manchester City. Real Madrid will never have the chance to record an undeserved win against England. When, in three weeks, one of these teams is proclaimed the winner of Euro 2020 at Wembley, it will not diminish its achievement that it is not better than Bayern Munich.
Indeed, to some extent it is the flaws that mark all international teams that lend tournaments their magic. France, on first glimpse, is superior to all of its rivals, but it is not perfect, impervious. It has weaknesses, ones more likely to be exposed and exploited in a single game, one-and-done knockout than over the course of a league season, or even in the home-and-away format of the latter stages of the Champions League.
At least in a tournament summer, it is a strength, not a weakness, of international soccer that it is not subject to the same schisms as the club game, where a smattering of teams have hoarded so many players and so much talent that they are, in effect, untouchable by all but a handful of rivals. The gap between great international sides and merely good ones is much smaller than that between the very best clubs and, well, everyone else.
The comparison is still worth making, though, and the hypothetical worth indulging, because the difference between club and international soccer affects the way we judge teams when a tournament rolls around.
Our barometer of what is good — of what it takes to win a competition, of what makes a team a serious contender, of what excellence looks like — is set during the long stretch of the club season, from August until May.
We watch Manchester City, Liverpool, Bayern and the rest and understand that they represent the bar: To be good enough to win the Premier League or the Champions League, a team must be able to reach that specific level of organization and sophistication and potency. They are all of such a high standard that almost any flaw qualifies as fatal.
The same does not hold in an international tournament. None of the teams in Euro 2020 — and the same is true of the Copa América — have yet surpassed that bar. Belgium looked good, but against a weak Russian team. Italy has won twice but only against a disappointing Turkey and Switzerland. England was wasteful against Croatia. The Dutch let Ukraine back into the game. Portugal required 84 minutes to score against Hungary. Spain had Álvaro Morata up front.
We look at these teams and we see shortcomings and then use them as evidence that they cannot be considered serious contenders to win the tournament.
That, though, is the club game talking. It is what we have learned to be true in the Champions League being applied to a tournament where the same logic does not hold, like watching a school track-and-field day and expecting to see times fitting for an Olympic final. (“That 8-year-old hasn’t even gone under 10 seconds, they don’t stand a chance.”)
With a couple of exceptions — most notably the Spain team that won three consecutive tournaments between 2008 and 2012 — most teams that succeed on the international stage are flawed. Most of them would, at best, be considered broadly passable if they came up against the very best clubs. Only a few would make it to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
That is not something to be bemoaned. If anything, it is to be encouraged. But it means, as we settle into a tournament like the Euros or the Copa América, we need to remember that you do not need to be great to win it; that the expectations we develop over the course of a club season are not especially relevant; that, at the international level, a team cannot be written off because it does not look great, because sometimes, every couple of years, being merely good is enough.
Not Everything Is Reduced by Perspective
Denmark’s players had barely stopped running. For 10 minutes, they had hunted down Belgium’s glittering lineup remorselessly, ruthlessly, racing around the field at the Parken Stadium with a fierce, frenzied energy. And then, as soon as the clock struck 10, they stopped, they stood and they applauded. And the fans applauded with them.
It is not quite true to say that the fate of Denmark’s campaign in Euro 2020 does not matter, that what happened to Christian Eriksen last Saturday has rendered it all irrelevant. It is of secondary importance, of course, compared with Eriksen’s health, but it does not render those fans in the stadium in Copenhagen on Thursday inhuman for wanting their team to win. It does not make the players monsters for being disappointed that, despite a spirited first half, they eventually lost to Belgium.
Soccer is at its best in its darkest moments. The outpouring of concern and affection after Eriksen’s gut-wrenching, terrifying collapse was — despite the intense darkness of the circumstance — cheering. Players and officials and fans set aside tribal and national allegiances to extend their support. Perhaps that is just the decent thing to do, but still: Those clubs offering their thoughts and prayers did not have to say anything, so even a small kindness should be worthy of praise.
But soccer also has a tendency, at those times, to downplay its significance, to insist on its own irrelevance, as if in the most extreme circumstances it allows us all to glimpse the great secret that lies behind the fourth wall: that this is all just a game, that we are all party to some great mutual, self-sustaining delusion, that none of it really matters.
That is and is not true. It is possible to care far more about Eriksen’s health than whether Denmark qualifies, but the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. Part of the reason that Eriksen means so much to so many people is because soccer does matter; because he has brought them pleasure in, and excelled at, something that matters not only to them, but to him, too.
A Lost Soul
Even before he got to the part where he explained what had happened, it was abundantly clear that, deep down, Sergio Ramos did not want to be standing at a microphone, explaining that he was leaving Real Madrid. His voice was cracking by the end of the first sentence. He was holding back tears midway through the second.
This was not a player who had decided it was time for a fresh start, or a broader horizon, or a final payday. He was not making a reluctant, but necessary, change. Instead, he had been left with little to no choice. He had been haggling with the club for months over the length of a new contract. He wanted two more seasons; Real Madrid felt that, at his age, one was more appropriate.
In Ramos’s telling, at least, as he was mulling it over, it turned out that he had run out of time. Quite how a club can forget to tell its iconic captain that a deadline to agree a contract is approaching — let alone that it has passed — is hard to fathom, but credit to Real Madrid for managing it.
In a strictly sporting sense, Real Madrid should not bat an eyelash at his departure. His replacement was secured weeks ago: the Austrian captain David Alaba, signed on a free transfer from Bayern Munich, may not be a specialist central defender, but he is sufficiently versatile that he is probably in the top 10 in the world at that position anyway.
But in almost every other way, Real Madrid will be impoverished by Ramos’s absence. No player better summed up the club: his fierce will to win, his irrevocable competitive streak, the faint sense that it was hard to work out quite how he was as good as he was. Real is losing far more than a central defender; it is losing its heart and soul, the player who had come to embody the club. That it is losing all of that so carelessly is, perhaps, the most damning indictment imaginable.
No doubt about the question on everyone’s mind this week, given voice by Shawn Donnelly: “Who would win in a game between Georgia, the state, and Georgia, the country?”
After a little cursory research, Shawn, this one is quite easy: the country, every single time. Georgia the state can call on Kyle Martino, Clint Mathis, Ricardo Clark and — at best — two other people I have heard of. Georgia the country gets to name Kakha Kaladze, Temuri Ketsbaia, Georgi Kinkladze, Levan Kobiashvili and not one but two Arveladzes. It’s a walkover.
James Armstrong nominates Ferenc Puskas as the player he would most like to time-travel to watch — which seems, if I am honest, a bit of a waste of that particular superpower — though I wonder if there is another player from that famous Hungarian squad of the 1950s who might be an even smarter suggestion: Nandor Hidegkuti, the man who made the team tick.
And an extremely apposite question from Brandon Conner, to round things off. “As the Women’s Super League has risen lately, and with the increased importance the richer clubs have placed on their women’s teams, I wonder how this will affect the international landscape. The U.S.W.N.T. has been the lone bright spot in America’s soccer hopes, but could the rise of European teams investing in women’s soccer eventually bring an end to the U.S. women’s dominance?”
My short answer would be yes: That will, I would guess, be the story of women’s soccer over the next decade or so. Not because Europeans are naturally superior at soccer to Americans and not even, really, because of the investment, but because all of those clubs bristling up against one another turns Europe into a cradle of ideas. It creates what is described in “Soccernomics” as a best-practice network, in which proximity to the network is what determines success and failure.