Germany tops the league of leagues represented in the quarter-finals...Finally, World Cup 2010 is beginning to enter crunch time, where reputations and legacies are truly forged or thrown by the wayside.
With the quarter-finals starting on Friday, just eight teams remain to compete for football's biggest prize. One of those isn't England, however, after Fabio Capello's men were dumped out in circumstances few are likely to forget for a long time.
With the inquest into the Three Lions' demise at the hands of Germany already three days old, explanations for the failure are coming thick and fast. One such reason sees the Premier League take the blame, for tiring players too greatly with its all-action style, cluttered fixture schedule and lack of a winter break.
But is there any truth to such a hypothesis? Goal.com UK looks at where the 184 men who remain in the World Cup play their club football, and compiles a league of the top six leagues by the number of players.
(NB: For the purposes of this article, the league 'representatives' are based on where they played the majority of last season. So, for example, Angel di Maria is classed as a representive of Benfica and the Portuguese league, despite just signing for Real Madrid, while Robinho is classed for the Brazilian league — where he has been playing with Santos — rather than Manchester City, who still own his playing rights.)
||No. of players left in World Cup
||Maximum no. of domestic games (all comps)
(split in two leagues)
* Not including FA Cup replays (which could potentially bring total to 56)
NUMBERS GAME23 - Germany's entire squad played in the Bundesliga last season. Of the remaining teams, only Spain (20) can even compete with such a display of domestic strength.
2 - Uruguay have just two home-based representatives in their squad, the lowest number of any of the remaining eight teams in the competition.
5 - The Netherlands have the biggest contingent of England-based representatives (Ryan Babel, Nigel de Jong, John Heitinga, Robin van Persie, Dirk Kuyt). Only Babel isn't first choice, but all bar Kuyt endured injury-enforced rests at some point during the campaign.
2 - The number of weeks of compassionate leave the Premier League's star player to date, Carlos Tevez, took during February — creating his own winter break.
49.9 - The average number of games members of the England squad played in last season. Despite Bayern Munich's success, Germany's tally is 'just' 47.
50% - Of the eight squads left in the competition, Serie A is the biggest contributor of players to four of them (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Ghana).
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
It is obviously dangerous to make too many concrete conclusions from such a select band of data, but there are some interesting points that stand out.
For one, the Premier League is out of the line with the rest of the world's top leagues when it comes to a winter break (in South America many countries go further, running two leagues a season — Apertura & Clausura), a difference long-cited by England managers as a key problem when it comes to international competitions.
Indeed, the evidence suggests there may be some truth to such claims. Many Premier League players have underwhelmed in South Africa to date, and those who haven't — Carlos Tevez, Robin van Persie, Park Ji-Sung — all had time off (injury-enforced or otherwise) during last season. The tournament's biggest 'flop' to date, Fernando Torres, is still recovering from his own injury struggles (just as England's great hope, Wayne Rooney, seemed to be), and the Spaniard seems in little doubt where the problem lies.
“This is my third season and I’m still amazed," the Liverpool striker noted on the eve of the World Cup. "The English league really wears down a player. I just can’t imagine what state I’ll be in within five or six years if I continue to play here.”
It is somewhat revealing that the Bundesliga and La Liga have the largest representation of players, until it becomes clear that this is mainly because of their national team contingents of 23 and 20 respectively. This means that of the Bundesliga's 37 players still in the competition, only 14 are not playing for Germany. For La Liga's 33 players remaining, only 13 aren't playing for Spain.
Contrast these figures to the 19 Premier League 'foreigners' still in the World Cup, and the 28 players from Serie A who are not Italian, and it adds weight to the argument that the influx of foreign talents into those leagues are hindering 'homegrown' talents.
With both countries failing to live up to expectations in South Africa, it is an interesting statistic. With the more relaxed work permit rules, Serie A's unmatched importation of talent has been a great success in terms of improving the league's quality, as Inter's Champions League success shows.
But how has it restricted the development of young, homegrown stars? How many more players, like Davide Santon, have had to sit behind world-class stars, such as Brazilian Maicon, as their development is suddenly stunted? With players from both countries seemingly reluctant to move abroad to play (like Germany, both Italy and England provided all 23 players from their domestic league) surely the pool of available players is reduced as imports vastly outweigh exports?
Is that why the average age of Italy's finals squad (28.2) was behind only England (28.6) and Brazil (28.6 - all but six of whom play abroad) among the game's heavy hitters?
Up for the cup
The other obvious incongruity with the other top leagues in the game is the number of cup competitions English teams are involved in. While Argentina does not bother with cup competitions at all, and most European leagues treat their sole knockout prize as little more than an inconvenient sideshow, in the FA Cup and League Cup, Premier League sides have two competitions that potentially add an extra 18 games to an already demanding schedule.
And while the best teams tend to rotate players for the lesser lights of the League Cup (at least in the earlier rounds), the FA Cup demands a concerted effort as fans always hope to do well in one of the game's most historic competitions.
This extra competition undoubtedly is linked to final major criticism of the Premier League system — its length. Only the Bundesliga and Primera Division ran a week or more longer than the Premier League last season, but both took breaks of nearly month during the middle of the campaign.
And that's before considering the actual effect of playing in the all-action Premier League, which has long been considered more physically demanding than any other, as well as the fact that there are less games in a longer period of time, allowing players greater recovery time between matches.
"The players will never admit it, but it is mentally and physically the hardest league in the world," New Zealand and Blackburn Rovers captain Ryan Nelsen said recently.
"It is so draining. Inevitably, all the players around the world that have come down with injuries are generally Premier League players."
But while most European leagues take a break from the penultimate week of December to the middle of January, such a move would be problematic in England. The Boxing Day/New Year's Day/FA Cup Third Round combination of games is a tradition popular with fans and somewhat ingrained in the sporting culture, and as such there would be opposition to such a move - not least from television companies who prop up their schedules with live football at an otherwise quiet time of year.
Perhaps an option would be to take the break after the FA Cup Third Round (which takes place the first weekend in January) until the end of the transfer window — but that would mean re-arranging the Carling Cup semi-finals completely (both legs are usually completed in January), and such a rest might impact on squads' match readiness for Champions League action in February, something the elite would be desperate to avoid.
Indeed, any winter break would only cause even greater fixture congestion elsewhere in the schedule. In reality, it seems unavoidable that the League Cup would have to be scrapped before any such break could be introduced.
But, when push comes to shove, would the clubs or fans really be in favour of that?
Such issues may not be the only reason for the national team's failure, but it does add credence to the claim of Capello (and Sven-Goran Eriksson before him) that his players are more tired than their counterparts from the strongest leagues in the world.