The World Cup began with a Europhobic tone. In his speech the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, attacked Europe. He accused its representatives of arrogance, double standards and self-centredness. He overlooked one point: the centre of football is indeed in Europe: historically, culturally, economically and sportingly. Only in Europe is it possible to have a great career in top-level football.
Europe dominates contemporary football. In the World Cup that is clearer than ever. The last time the final of the tournament was played without a European team was almost three quarters of a century ago. The last four world champions are Italy, Spain, Germany and France – and three of their four opponents in the final came from Europe. In 2006 and 2018, the semi-finals were all European.
The dominance in club football is even clearer. Everything is pointing towards Europe, to the five big leagues, and this trend has intensified since the creation of the Champions League in 1992. The last world-class footballers to really shine outside Europe were Pelé and Zico. Diego Maradona spent his best years in Spain and Italy, Lionel Messi went to Barcelona as a child, Neymar at 21. From the starting XI of the last non-European world champions, Brazil 2002, only one never played in Europe during his lifetime: Marcos, the goalkeeper.
Talent is evenly distributed across the globe – South America develops many great footballers, Africa has great players – but they always take the final step in a European league. The last world champion teams where this was different were Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s.
Now the Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay teams consist almost exclusively of footballers from the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue 1 or Serie A. Teams with a different profile have virtually no chance of reaching the semi-finals at the World Cup, not to mention winning the title. The hosts Qatar failed against Ecuador because the South Americans had, in Enner Valencia, someone who had developed his game in England.
The first impression of this World Cup is that Europe will give Infantino the answers on the pitch. England displayed some weaknesses in defence, but scored six goals against Iran. The Netherlands, the three-time World Cup finalists, defeated African champions Senegal. For the French, Australia will not have been the last opponent against whom they are superior in all positions. From the very first minute, Spain once again displayed the clear style that sets them apart from everyone else: attacking possession. The 7-0 against Costa Rica was an uneven duel. Belgium, Denmark, Poland, Wales and Croatia were also well organised. Europe’s players perform and thanks to them the tournament is attractive.
Italy, the European champions, are not even in the tournament, nor are the former World Cup finalists Sweden and Hungary, nor are the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who, when they were part of the same country, were in the final twice. Erling Haaland, possibly one of the defining strikers of the next decade, is absent in Qatar because the European qualifying section was too strong for Norway. If World Cup places were awarded according to only sporting criteria, Europe would have more than 13 of the 32 participants in Qatar.
Only Germany were off the mark. They were leading 1-0 against Japan when Hansi Flick substituted three Bayern Munich players as well as one each from Chelsea and Manchester City and replaced them with squad members with little Champions League experience. In a way Germany beat themselves as both Japan’s goalscorers in the 2-1 win play in the Bundesliga.
Otherwise, Europe’s teams are usually assertive on the world stage. In this way, they provide the sports politicians with a template to follow. If there is one criticism of them it is that they have betrayed the values of enlightenment that the continent stands for. For many years, their focus has been on high individual profits and not on the responsibility that football has to assume in society.
What has happened to Fifa, a European institution based in Zurich, which was once founded out of a desire for international solidarity by Sweden, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland?
Football needs new representatives to deal with its credibility crisis. They can go back to its origins. A century and a half ago, it began its global march in England, Scotland, Switzerland, soon followed by Spain and Germany. It was so successful because it was part of the labour movement and democratisation. It made social advancement possible and required fair play. It was given life in the club culture.
To this day, these roots are the strength of football. Now the task is to defend these achievements. For Europe, it is a matter of self-preservation. Cooperation is needed, football is a team sport.
The first steps have been taken. The fact is giving the World Cup to Qatar 12 years ago is now largely accepted to have been a mistake. In Qatar, some European associations wanted to join forces to send a signal for diversity with a colourful captain’s armband. However, it was very naive to rely on Fifa’s leniency in doing so. In the power struggle with Infantino, a Swiss of Italian origin, Europe is lagging behind.
The teams are now giving up the armband, but that cannot be the last word. Supported by the strong performances of the players, Uefa’s associations must now fight back, in unity, of course, with allies from other continents. We must save the values of football and what this game expresses.
Philipp Lahm’s column was produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries.