National teams get a new lease

National teams get a new lease

Having gone from the top of the class to dunces in one World Cup cycle, France and Italy have begun new football revolutions this week. They are not alone. Such is the price of failure that seemingly everyone who can afford it is changing coaches and some players—with the exception of Spain, which won the World Cup last month, and Germany, which found a bright new crop of players during the event.

Of all the revisions, Brazil, in seeking to go back to the “beautiful game", have the most palatable and most logical strategy. But Brazil are Brazil, and no other country has such talent in such numbers to call upon. “Brazil always had this kind of talent," Mano Menezes, Brazil’s new coach, had said the day before his team’s winning match against the US on Tuesday. “We’re not inventing anything new," he said. “The results, I’m aware, are important. With no results, projects cannot survive."

France and Italy can vouch for that. Finalists at the 2006 World Cup, they refused to move forward, retained the same coaches, and humiliated themselves in South Africa. The French players mutinied against their domineering coach, Raymond Domenech, and the Italians merely faded along with their conservative master, Marcello Lippi.

Domenech has since departed, his soccer president has gone, and as a point of rather pointless principle, no player who was involved in the World Cup was included for the friendly match on Wednesday against Norway in Oslo.

“We spent a lot of time in offices and meetings lately," said Laurent Blanc, the new coach of the new Bleus. “We needed to do that. But I don’t forget that the place I’m good at—if I’m good at anything—is on the field. The players, the staff, all want to play, all want to be back on a pitch."

Blanc is one of 132 national team managers starting afresh this week with friendly matches. The games are too close to the World Cup and too much of a distraction for club coaches, whose seasons are interrupted again or just about to start.

This is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association’s, or Fifa’s, way. Its calendar is always full and its national associations have less than a month to prepare for qualifying matches for the next European or African or South American tournaments. The clubs pay the players’ salaries, but the national teams have domain over their playing time.

The only way of avoiding national service is the route taken this week by two English players: goalkeeper Paul Robinson and defender Wes Brown, who opted out by declaring themselves retired from representing their country.

Brown and Robinson are 30. Both were discarded before the last World Cup. Both think their careers are best served by concentrating on their play for their club teams.

At the same age, Amauri Carvalho de Oliveira is starting a new life. Amauri, as he is known, is one of those Brazilians who would rather play national team soccer for someone else than never get the chance in his homeland. Born in Sao Paulo state, he settled in Italy for a decade and was eventually granted Italian citizenship. He was called up for duty this week by Italy’s new coach, Cesare Prandelli. Italy lost to Ivory Coast, 1-0, on Tuesday night in London, but the selection of the emerging Mario Balotelli, the volatile Antonio Cassano and Amauri has divided opinions in Italy. The new coach’s selections have aroused xenophobic, even racist, criticism in Italy.

Balotelli is negotiating to take his skills to Manchester City in England, not least to escape the taunts he receives at certain stadiums in Italy because of his Ghanaian heritage. Amauri’s dual nationality provoked Davide Cavallotto, a politician with the Northern League party, to broadcast at the weekend, “What Brazil refused, we took." He dismissed Amauri as “a leftover" and said “the real representatives of this country aren’t its foreigners".

The newspaper La Repubblica earlier this month commended Prandelli for a signal that was political rather than technical. “The new Italy," it concluded, “is open to naturalized players, and hopefully, like Germany, to the sons of immigrants."

Germany’s World Cup squad included Claudemir Jeronimo Barretto, known as Cacau, this summer. He worked his way up from the fifth division of German soccer over eight seasons and scored within 2 minutes of taking the field against Australia at the World Cup. As France proved long ago with marvellous players born in or descended from its former protectorates, and as the new Germany emphasizes with its cosmopolitan make-up, the Fifa rules on nationality are now so flexible that anyone who has not played senior soccer for another country is open for selection.


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