Whereas club sides are constantly evolving through the transfer market international teams usually run in a cycle, typically a cycle lasts 6-8 years and there are 4 phases before teams perish and fall in the way we saw Argentina collapse this year if they don’t keep rotating between these phases. Strangely the this years 4 World Cup semi finalists represent each of these stages in the cycle so what are they?
The New Kids on the Block Stage: England
No not the naff ’80s teen band, this is the new team phase of the football cycle. This is a new team, one with a new manager brining a rip it up and start again mentality to a moribund side. England are a perfect example- a new young manager in Gareth Southgate who has brought a new belief and new style of play to a national side dumped on its rear end at Euro 2016. So inexperienced was this England team at the start of the tournament that no player in the squad had ever won a World Cup finals game and only 5 had been part of a World Cup squad before. At the start of the tournament the likes of Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier, Jordan Pickford & Jesse Lingard were international novices with a handful of caps between them- now they are the bedrock of the England squad for the next 4-8 years.
And with their recent triumphs at the Under 17 & Under 20 World Cup’s and Under 19 European Championship title England will have plenty of bright young talent to form a second and third layer of their squad at the next 2 World Cups.
A past example: Germany 2006
Germany’s 2006 squad bares a striking resemblance to this England side. Under the management of Jurgen Klinsmann and Joachim Low Germany arrived at their own World Cup nervous even about their chances of winning their opener against Costa Rica. The team had been humiliated at Euro 2004 and Klinsmann brought in to start a revolution in coaching and tactics. By the time the World Cup arrived Klinsmann had drafted in new young talents Philip Lahm, Bastian Schweitnsteiger, Per Mertesacker & Lukas Podolski to complement reliable striker Miroslav Klose and the teams one true superstar Michael Ballack.
Although they eventually lost in the semi finals and grabbed the bronze medal the tournament reestablished Germany at the top table. The coaching revolution wouldn’t pay a dividend until 2010 when the previous years Euro Under 21 champions added style to the substance laid down in 2006, all of those young talents from 2006 and even veteran Klose would be in Germany’s triumphant 2014 squad.
England will be looking to go a game further than their German counterparts this time and their youth sides that delivered a glut of silverware isn’t part of the senior side yet but they should be cominth through by Euro 2020.
The Maturing Stage: France
If England reached their year zero with the Iceland debacle France reached theirs in the qualifiers for Brazil 2014. France were forced into a playoff and trailed Ukraine 2-0 after the first leg. But French pride was restored with a rousing 3-0 win at the Stade De France and once at the World Cup showed off a brash new side featuring new talents Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Hugo Lloris & Raphael Varane. France were not ready to win that World Cup and bowed out in the last 8. But they continued to build at Euro 2016 making the final with Pogba & Griezmann now the star attractions.
France have matured into potential winners this time around by building around those key players with a second layer of young talent in Benjamin Pavard, Ousmane Dembele, Thomas Lemar and of course Kylian M’bappe. France have an incredibly talented young side although doubts persist about manager Didier Deschamps.
A past example: Spain 2010
Spain’s young side hailing largely from Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona had impressed at the 2006 World Cup with youngsters David Villa, Fernando Torres, Andreas Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas & Sergio Ramos making their World Cup debuts. But Spain were mugged in the last 16 by Zinedine Zidane and his battle hardened French side enroute to the final. Spain went on to win Euro 2008 and arrived in South Africa amongst the favourites.
With Spain continuing to mimic Barcelona’s tiki-taka style Spain were streetwise enough to see of tough opponents and had by now mastered the art of game management even seeing off Germany’s bright young things in the semi finals before going on to lift the trophy. Spain went on to win Euro 2012 before the team fell into a shock loss of form in 2014 that now looks like the beginning of the decline.
The Spain/ Germany axis has dominated European and World football at international level for a decade although surprisingly that semi final in South Africa was the only time they met in tournament football. It seems we are now seeing that axis shifting to France/ England.
The Best Chance Stage: Belgium
Belgium have been threatening to be a great side since 2013 but at tournaments always seemed to be less than the sum of their parts, until last week. Belgium beat Brazil to make the last 4 and have arguably the best first 11 in world football. The management switch from the insipid Marc Wilmots to more flexible Roberto Martinez seems to have unlocked Belgium’s potential and they have made their first semi final since their previous golden generation made it to the semi-finals in 1986.
But Belgium’s power may start to wane after this World Cup when you look at the age of the backbone of this side- Vincent Company 32, Jan Vertonghan 31, Dires Martens 31, Toby Alderweield 29, Marouane Fellaini 30 & Axel Wiesel 29. Belgium have not been tearing it up in youth football and only 3 members of their squad are under 24. Key attacking trio Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard & Kevin De Bryune are all in 25-27 age bracket so Belgium will still be around for a while yet but this year always looked like representing their greatest chance.
A past example: Brazil 2002
Brazil arrived in 2002 with a side smarting from that 3-0 defeat to France in the 1998 final with many knowing 2006 would be a stretch. The team was led by marauding fullbacks Roberto Carlos & Cafu aged 29 and 31 respectively and 30-year-old former Ballon d’Or winner Rivaldo. The team also boasted experienced midfielder Juninho in tandem with relative newcomer Gilberto Silva. And up front they had a dynamic new talent in PSG’s Ronaldinho but the crown jewel was the fit again Ronaldo now back from 4 years of injury torment.
Brazil had the perfect blend of youth, experience and hunger steming from Ronaldo’s trauma in 1998 and that loss in Paris. They stormed through the tournament with their 3 pronged attack too hot for anyone to handle and Cafu lifted the trophy in Tokyo. 4 years later Rivaldo & Juninho had gone, Ronaldo was past his best whilst Roberto Carlos & Cafu were in the twilight of their careers. Although Brazil had a new superstar in Kaka the balance of the team and perhaps the motivation weren’t as strong nor were the ageing limbs and Brazil eventually bowed out in the quarter-finals.
The current Belgium side is perhaps not quite as good as Brazil’s wonderful 2002 team but they are at a similar point in their cycle, retirements may start to hit as early next week in the case of the sides spiritual leader Kompany and whilst they will be around for a while yet the back line of this side will be either very different or very old come Qatar.
The Last Chance Saloon Stage: Croatia
Quite simply this is a last chance for a golden generation. 32-year-old skipper Luka Modric burst onto the international stage a full decade ago at Euro 2008 whilst his playmaking partner Ivan Rakitic is now 30 & main striker Mario Mandzukic is 32. All 3 have been great staples of the Champions League Circuit for the last 10 years with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus & Bayern Munich but are now in a squad with an average age of almost 28.
This generation had previously failed to live up to the success of the previous Suker/ Prozinecki/ Boban generation who briefly established Croatia at the top table of European Football in the mid 90s, but they’ve come good at the last time of asking and made their nations second World Cup semi final. It will be the last time for this group with Modric, Mandzukic, Verdan Corluka and Danijel Subasic all prime contenders to announce their international retirement next week whilst Rakitic and Ivan Perisic will surely not stay beyond Euro 2020.
A Previous Example: Scotland 1974
This may seem a stingy comparison for a side who could yet win this World Cup and if they do this comparison may change to Italy’s veteran champions of 1982. But Scotland’s 1974 team was a fine side of players hailing from the best teams from both sides of Hadrian’s Wall at a time when Celtic were still considered part of Europe’s elite and Leeds were runaway champions of England; a club who would provide 5 of Scotland’s 22 man squad that summer including inspirational skipper Billy Bremner.
But Bremner was now 31 and for him and most of the star players including Denis Law 34, Jimmy Johnstone 29 & Willie Morgan 29 this was the last chance at a World Cup whilst other key men Peter Lorimer & David Hay wouldn’t be around come 1978. Scotland of course didn’t win in 1974 but did produce their countries best ever World Cup campaign going unbeaten and only being denied what would have been a deserved win over Brazil by a horrendous Rivelino tackle on Bremner. Scotland exited unbeaten and won plenty of plaudits for their performances in Germany.
But after returning from West Germany it would be the junior members of the squad: Joe Jordan, Gordon McQueen and a certain 21-year-old Kenny Dalglish that would need to carry the side forward. Croatia must hope promising youngster Ante Rebic & Mateo Kovacic can carry the torch when the Croats head into the Nations League this autumn.