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Lilliput’s Revolt

International qualifiers might now lack the quality of top flight European football, but they more than match the major leagues for drama and unpredictability. In the qualifiers for Euro 2012, one feels that anything and everything could happen and probably will. For the likes of Italy and France, things are going to get worse before they get better. Both the fading powers are stuck in what could easily be described as groups of death, were it not for the fact that almost every group contains three or four sides that could finish first or second. Only Spain (obviously), England, and Germany look certain to win their groups. Uncertainty lurks in every game—what has happened to the predictable march of the old élite?

The simple answer is that everyone else has got a lot better. The more complicated answer comes when you ask why. Italy’s group (C), however, offers as good as place as any to begin. Aside from Italy, Group C contains Serbia, Slovenia, and Northern Ireland, all in the running for at least second place. Serbia, as the progressively weakened successor of the old Yugoslavia team, is probably the traditionally “biggest” and most likely team of the three, but Serbia also demonstrates the first way that European qualifiers have got harder. The collapse of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union has increased the number of qualifiers from 32 (for the 1988 tournament) to 53. This has both increased the scale of qualifying and has created a number of big successor teams—countries that are still big despite being split up. The best examples of these are Russia and Ukraine from the USSR, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia from Yugoslavia, as well as the Czech Republic. Most of these teams are competitive: they’re all big countries, population-wise, they have a history of success through their parent teams and national leagues, and so should be able to produce good teams.

Slovenia demonstrate the other effect of these break-ups—lots of smaller teams, most of which are competent and a few of which have become real threats. Among this group of fierce minnows, Slovenia and Slovakia are the real stars: Slovenia have qualified for two World Cups (2002 and 2010), going unbeaten in the first qualifying campaign, and Euro 2000, and beat Romania, Russia and Ukraine in the respective play-offs. Slovakia, meanwhile, have built from a 3rd place qualifying finish for Euro 2004 to a play-off exit against Spain for the 2006 World Cup, before winning their group to qualify for South Africa, where they beat Italy before crashing out against the Netherlands. These teams and their less successful ilk (of the other “small” countries, only Latvia have also made a major tournament) have benefited again from inheriting good leagues and a professional infrastructure to drive them forward.

Northern Ireland represent the final set of giant-killers—the traditional successful small teams. The triumvirate from the UK, the Republic of Ireland, Belgium, Greece, and Scandinavian teams that aren’t Sweden have long punched above their weight in European competitions and are the teams fighting the advance of the East Europeans onto their turf. Without successful leagues of their own or large populations, these teams have succeeded by latching onto nearby leagues (the British and Irish), recruiting extensively throughout a diaspora (the Irish), by employing novel tactics to bring bigger teams down to their level (Norway, Greece), and, occasionally, by getting a sudden glut of talented players (Denmark).

However, it’s Norway’s example that really shows why European qualification is going to be hair-raisingly close in a lot of groups. Norway came to prominence in the early 90s by playing the purest, most successful long-ball game the world has ever seen. The coach, Egil Olsen, was a devotee of the pseudo-statistical analysis of football of Charles Reep, and an ardent believer that Route One, counter-attacking, defensive football was the most efficient style of play— especially for Norway. Norway’s style had its detractors (anyone with eyes), but it was effective: Olsen took Norway to two World Cups, a bewildering No.2 FIFA world ranking, and two wins over Brazil.

Olsen’s 4-5-1 didn’t quite catch on, for obvious stylistic reasons and because it seemed like an admission of failure, but in 2004, Greece proved that you could use defensive tactics to frustrate better teams and win a major championship. Greece benefited from a weak tournament dominated by cautious coaches, but were also worth their win by marking assiduously and using a five-man midfield to strangle their opponents play. Despite the brief interlude of Euro 2008, international football began to move towards greater caution and defensiveness. At the beginning of this decade, the final, most extreme lesson for weaker teams was set by Inter Milan and every team that played Spain. In 2010, teams resolved to face stronger teams by concentrating almost purely on defence, to retreat fully into their own half, and rely on a breakaway goal. Inter beat one of the great club sides by doing it, Switzerland beat one of the greatest international sides, and everyone else followed their lead.

Smart managers know that it’s on the international stage that these tactics can serve as a great equalizer. Most international teams don’t have much time to train together, don’t play together regularly, and therefore don’t have the intuitive understanding that long-term team-mates do. This makes the sophisticated moves needed to break a mass defence more difficult to pull off. Moreover, in contrast to clubs, international minnows don’t need to repeat this mentally and physically draining tactic week in, week out. They can simply psyche themselves up for a big game and settle in for a long hard defence of the goal.

This type of game is easier in modern football as well. The higher fitness levels allow coaches to execute tactics and game plans that would have been almost impossible even in Egil Olsen’s day. The greater professionalism of most players also helps coaches, as players are more likely to accept working in a tight shape, to put the work necessary for a formation to succeed. While technique is difficult to teach and clever team attacking takes a long time to build, fitness and team shape can be quickly and relatively easily drilled into players.

This style has practically been tattooed onto a number of sides recently. Montenegro, in their first ever qualifying campaign, battled their way to six draws in their 2010 qualification group, and have since ground out 1-0 wins against Bulgaria and Wales. Israel are possibly the dullest team in Europe, but continue to defend above their weight: in the 2006 qualification campaign they were unbeaten in a group with France, the Republic of Ireland, and Switzerland, and in the 2008 campaign finished on equal points with Steve McClaren’s England. Under Giovanni Trapattoni, the Republic of Ireland have turned this into a dogma, hauling their way laboriously but successfully through their most recent qualifying group, whilst discarding their most talented passing midfielder (Andy Reid).

Even smaller teams, meanwhile, have taken an unattractive but nonetheless honest tactic and degraded it into pure cynicism. Andorra’s style in recent years truly deserves the epithet “anti-football”, whilst Liechtenstein’s thankfully unsuccessful assault on Scotland was characterised in the later stages by a series of outrageous attempted leg-breakers on Alan Hutton. Hopefully few teams will emulate their stultifying combination of Inter Milan’s taste for niggling fouls to break up play, and van Marwijk-era Holland’s taste for raw brutality.

Not all smaller sides need to do this: the Czech Republic and Croatia both played superb attacking football in their heydays at the turn of the century, whilst the Denmark team of the 1980s played some of the best football in the world. Disappointingly few teams are likely to follow these sides, or for that matter, small clubs that have successfully utilised possession football, the latest of which is Blackpool.

Instead of the artistry of sophisticated passing football, the European qualifiers are likely to give us football’s more visceral guilty pleasures—last-ditch defending, the 70 minute hold-out against superior opposition, vicious counter-attacks horribly against the run of play, and the repeated triumph of the underdog. And even if the games themselves do not promise to be blockbusters, the campaign itself will be a tense, art-house thriller: the slow, slow ratcheting of fear and anxiety until eventually, in a blur of excitement, the winners and losers unexpectedly emerge. Disappointingly, this is the last time we’ll have this kind of uncertainty, as UEFA is set to expand the finals to 24 teams, more or less guaranteeing every “big” team a place. So let’s enjoy the uncertainty while we can.

Also, because I’m feeling brave (foolish), here are some upsets for this week’s round of games I’m willing to predict:

  • Kazakhstan to draw against Belgium
  • Northern Ireland to beat Italy
  • Cyrpus to beat Denmark
  • Scotland to draw with Spain

Shane Murray is a freelance journalist. He can be found playing football in small Warwickshire villages.

The exception is Group E, which looks like it’ll be a fairly straightforward Netherlands-Sweden qualification.

It’s a mark of how good Capello’s England were (and how ridiculous criticism of him is) that they breezed through their group for 2010, which makes their later capitulation all the more inexplicable.

That said, I’m not a big fan of the actuarial analysis of football by Kuper and Syzmanski that says that “Population + Tradition + Some other numbers we’ve made up so that this fits with Brazil being the best team ever” accurately predicts football, because it doesn’t. (Serbia in the World Cup final, anyone?) Nonetheless, the existence of football infrastructure and a big population do help in the long run.

The odd man out in the taxonomy of teams suddenly getting better is Turkey, which is big, has a strong domestic league, but rarely frightened the horses at international level until the late 90s.

Arguably, however, Olsen’s success is over-rated. During his tenure, he had probably Norway’s one strongest-ever squad, including Henning Berg, Ronnie Johnsen, Stig Inge Bjornebye, Øyvind Leonhardsen, Alfie-Inge Haland, the Flo brothers, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. At the same time, Olsen only reached the second round in 1998, went out in the first in 1994, and failed to qualify for European Championships in 1996. Similarly, Roy Keane has argued that the Ireland team managed by fellow long-ball enthusiast Jack Charlton underachieved in 1990 and 1994, rather than overachieved; this argument looks even stronger when you look at the squads and recall the eye-bleedingly dull game between the two at USA 1994.

See also Barcelona’s two previous Champions League semi-finals.

It’s obviously not easy for international managers to turn their sides into Inter Milan, but it’s much easier for them to do that than to turn their sides into Barcelona.

See this brilliant article for more on “Danish Dynamite.”

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Lilliput’s Revolt

by Shane Murray · October 7, 2010

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