World Cup Football: Decoding the European Domination

Of the 21 World Cups—the 22nd now being played—as many as 12 titles have gone to Europe and nine to Latin America

World Cup Football: Decoding the European Domination

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The FIFA World Cup is the domain of the world’s football aristocrats. Only eight countries have shared the 21 titles so far—the 22nd to be decided later this month—with eternal favourites Brazil winning it five times, followed by Germany and Italy (four times each), Argentina, France and Uruguay (twice) and England and Spain a Cup apiece.

There have been several other teams for whom it’s been a case of so-near-yet-so-far – football historians often claim that Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands team of 1974 were possibly the ‘best’ team not to have won the Cup even once.

Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay may have tilted the balance of power towards South America from Europe from time to time in terms of dominating the world, but the ‘greatest show on earth’ has often threatened to get unipolar, monotonously so, in recent times.

How so, one may ask, especially in the light of the ongoing Qatar 2022 World Cup—which has already seen its quota of upsets with teams from Asia and Africa punching above their weight. A look at the bigger picture will illustrate the scenario better.

It was exactly two decades back in 2002 that the Samba boys from Brazil had last laid their hands on the Cup for the ‘Penta’ or the fifth crown while Diego Maradona last won it for Argentina 36 years back. Seven of the last eight World Cup finalists have been from Europe and 13 of the last 16 semi-finalists too, something which tells you how skewed the battle has become.

There is no gainsaying that football’s biggest showpiece is now suffering from being increasingly Eurocentric. The Euro Championship—which has become a mini-World Cup of sorts with an increase in the number of teams and aggressive marketing for broadcasting—has relegated Copa America into a poor cousin and more importantly, a two-horse race between Brazil and Argentina.

Add to this the UEFA Nations League, introduced in 2018, which allows top European countries to engage in some quality competition between themselves while the rest of the countries end up playing international friendlies during those weeks when leagues take a break.

The clout of top European football clubs, thanks to their money power, reached such a stage that 12 of them were threatening to form a breakaway European Super League (ESL) early last year—but vehement protests from fans had better sense prevailing with a majority of them at the end.

As many as nine heavyweights of the Group of 12—Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid pulled out of the cartel but Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus have stayed on as active members. There is now talk that the brains behind the project, labelled as money grab by the outraged fans, are planning to revive their plans in another couple of years.

The UEFA Champions League, a virtual roundthe-year affair which sees elite clubs of Europe participating, is arguably the biggest prize in club football. The FIFA Club World Cup Trophy – a inter-continental showpiece which sees league champions of each continent in the fray – has become a predictable affair which pits the European champions against their South American counterparts.

There are, hence, no prizes for guessing that it’s the far-reaching influence of the European clubs which has been shaping the economy of world football – especially since the new millennium.

The influx of uber rich owners into the top five European leagues (English Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1, Serie A and Bundesliga), along with plum broadcast deals have provided the league which a cash injection—the kind of which was unthinkable even 25 years back.

A look at the top-10 earners in global football for 2022-23, according to Forbes, show that they are all employed by European owners save a certain Andres Iniesta, now 39—a surprise occupant of the pecking order in the ninth position who still plies his trade in J-League. The top three earners, according to Forbes, are no surprise with Kylian Mbappe (Paris St Germain)—being hailed as heir apparent to the title of the greatest footballer of the world – set to earn a cumulative $128 million before taxes and agent’s fees. While the Frenchman is scheduled to make $110m from the club, another $ 18m is expected to roll in from endorsements as he is a brand ambassador of products like Nike, Dior, Hublot, Oakley and Panini.

The Messi-Ronaldo duo, who had occupied the top two earners’ positions in Forbes rankings since 2014, are now in second and third positions, respectively. The earnings projected for Messi, now with PSG, is $120m ($65m salary and 55m from endorsements etc), while it would be interesting to see if Ronaldo can live up to the expected tag of $ 100m ($40m as salary and rest in endorsements etc) on his departure from Manchester United.

Neymar (PSG) is fourth with an expected income of $87 million, followed by Mo Salah (Liverpool), Erling Haaland (Manchester City), Robert Lewandowski (Barcelona), Eden Hazard (Real Madrid), Iniesta and Kevin de Bruyne (Man City). No surprises there, really, but a sure-fire clue to the fact that world football has turned out to be a Europe versus the Rest affair – and is expected to continue in the same way.

Brazil, the South American powerhouse, which produced ‘Jogo Bonito’ (Pele’s beautiful game) and won the World Cup the highest number of times, has now taken up the role of the biggest exporter of young talents across the European leagues.

A Swedish study group, in their findings released in May this year, says Brazil had exported 1219 players across European leagues—221 of them employed by clubs in the Portuguese league. The second biggest suppliers are France (978), with Argentina occupying third position with 815 players.

According a data released by Fifa on the eve of Qatar 2022, 85 per cent of the current Brazilian team ply their trade in Europe while a staggering 92 per cent of Messi’s squad are also employed there. What’s more, 73 per cent of the footballers playing across all teams in Qatar are employed in Europe though the continent accounts for around 40 per cent of the 32 teams in this edition.

It’s a far cry from 1970, when the Brazilian squad comprised the likes of Pele, Tostao, Rivelino or Carlos Alberto—a combination often considered the best Pele was ever a part of. Explaining the dynamics of a goal in the final against Italy, Hindustan Times had then summed it up by pointing out: ‘It helped that every player in the 22-member 1970 squad played in Brazil at the time. Five were from Santos, three from Botafogo and Cruzeiro, two from Fluminese, Corin-thians and Palmeiras, and one each from Flamengo, Gremio, Sau Paulo, Atletico Mineiro and Portuguesa.’ But things have changed now. Perhaps irreversibly so.

Is it then time to rephrase former England striker Gary Linekar’s frequently quoted remark: “Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, in the end, the Europeans always win.”

We will find out soon!

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