A system built for success

A system built for success

A system built for success

Germany’s players were still embracing on the field, some minutes away from lifting the Confederations Cup trophy, when the congratulatory messages started to pour in. They came from some of the country’s most famous, most decorated players, winners of the World Cup and the Champions League: Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Jérôme Boateng and a host of others.

Some, like Kroos, expressed their delight at Germany’s defeat of Chile in St Petersburg — victory in the country’s first appearance in what may yet be the last iteration of this tournament — without words, communicating their happiness instead exclusively through emojis.

Other players were only a little more garrulous. “How great is that?” asked Mats Hummels. “What a triumph, what a squad,” said Ilkay Gundogan. Thomas Muller advised his countrymen, presumably based on his own experiences, to make sure they “have fun while celebrating.”

What marked those messages out as significant, though, was not the content of them so much as the context.

None of those players were on the field in Russia, waiting to take to the podium. Like Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira, Marco Reus, Julian Weigl, André Schurrle and many others, they had not been included in Joachim Loew’s squad for the competition. They were all watching, from home or from holiday, as their country proved its football resources run so deep, so wide, that it can triumph without them.

As Loew was quick to point out as he reflected on Germany’s victory, winning the Confederations Cup, even with “such a young side,” does not mean that the Germans, the World Cup champions, are certain to retain their crown when they return to Russia next summer. Nor does the European Championship won by its under-21 team last week in Poland mean that Germany can be assured of success in the senior continental tournaments in 2020 or 2024.

Major competitions do not subscribe to such straightforward logic. In the international game, more so even than at club level, tournament football is more complex, more chaotic than that.

In the concentrated, intense span of a World Cup or a continental championship, the fleeting and the unforeseen take on an outsize significance. One bad game, after all, is all it takes, and years of preparation can be wasted.

A raft of injuries, or poor form, might take hold. A referee — even one with a video monitor — might make a mistake. A rival — Brazil or Argentina, Italy or France — might build a momentum so impressive it takes on the air of destiny. The best team in the world does not always win the World Cup; the best team in the world that month ordinarily does.

Whether Germany wins twice on Russian soil in two years, though — and it is worth noting both that no winner of the Confederations Cup has ever won the subsequent World Cup, and that a World Cup winner has never repeated since Brazil in 1962 — should not detract from the broader pattern its latest gilded summer has brought to the surface.

Developing young players
In recent years, emissaries of Belgium’s football association have been invited around the planet to advise larger, richer nations on how to develop young players. Its representatives have given lectures at St George’s Park, where England’s national teams are based, and its coaches have found themselves inundated with offers from across the Far East and Africa.

The reason is obvious: somehow, Belgium, a country of just 11 million people, one with a generally unremarkable football pedigree and a fair-to-middling national league, has stumbled upon an astonishing production line of talent.

Every major Premier League team — apart from Arsenal — has at least one Belgian player. Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne are two of the most devastating attacking players in England; Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany among the best defenders. One of Roma’s finest players, Radja Nainggolan, is Belgian; so too is one of Napoli’s, Dries Mertens, and, in Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, one of Atlético Madrid’s. It is a roll call that warrants further attention.

The problem, however, is that there is no great secret to Belgium’s success. There was no programme put in place, no system endlessly fine-tuned, no grand plan to bring all of this together. Many of Belgium’s stars — including Hazard, Vertonghen and Alderweireld — honed their trade abroad, in France and the Netherlands. Nainggolan, like Hazard and Carrasco, has never played senior soccer in his homeland.

It is not a criticism of Belgium to say that it happened upon this remarkable generation of talent, particularly as it is doing all it can to use its recent success to help improve its own development infrastructure. But that is all it is: a happy coincidence, a set of unique circumstances that cannot be repackaged and repurposed for use across the globe. That so many in football remain determined to see it as a learning moment is indicative of a game that rarely digs beneath the surface, a sport that is in thrall to guru thinking, too quick to leap on any passing bandwagon without bothering to ask where, precisely, it is heading.

Too often, teams or nations that have nurtured one crop of players are assumed to have struck upon a magic formula to do so in perpetuity. Too often, the truth — that success of the moment is a one-off, as much a stroke of good fortune as of genius — is lost amid the noise. The reason for that is simple: Football is so dazzled by the brightest stars that it does not care to look beyond them.

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