SPECIAL REPORT: The Americas have dominated the World Cup in Brazil but the likes of Spain, Italy & England executed their pre-tournament plans badly and paid the priceIt is not exactly a first. Some of Europe’s most successful football nations are already off on their holidays after failing to make an impression on South America’s first World Cup in 36 years, continuing an 84-year trend of nations struggling to come to terms with unfamiliar surroundings.
Teams from Europe generally win those tournaments on their home continent, while representatives of the Americas tend to succeed when the competition heads west. The only anomaly to that pattern came back in 1958, when Brazil triumphed in Sweden.
And while nothing is set in stone in terms of a winner of Brazil 2014 just yet, the early signs show that Europeans are finding the transition difficult once more.
Whereas in Germany in 2006, when 10 of the 16 knockout slots were taken up by Europeans, just six have made it out of their group this time around. The chances of an all-Europe semi-final line-up to replicate eight years ago are slim at best.
With Spain, Italy, Portugal and England already having departed, many have been left to question whether the schedule has done for Europe’s finest, sending them to their demise by giving them a north-based route to the last 16. But in truth, some of the national sides could have done more to help themselves when it came to dealing with conditions in cities closer to the equator.
Like Lennox Lewis preparing for a world heavyweight title defence against Hasim Rahman in South Africa by heading for Hollywood to film Ocean’s Eleven, some of football’s biggest nations imposed a handicap on themselves by not thinking harder about how best to gear up for the group stage.
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For a start, both Cesare Prandelli and Roy Hodgson chose not to make the most of being sent to Manaus first up by heading to the Amazon early to acclimatise. Instead, they deemed their camps near Rio de Janeiro to be suitable spots to prepare despite the huge difference in climate.
A wiser decision than heading to Miami for pre-tournament fixtures – as England did – might have been to arrive earlier in the north of Brazil. Why go somewhere a bit like Manaus, when you can go to the real thing? Italy, meanwhile, were still in Europe when Hodgson took his squad to USA, and then camped in Mangaratiba near Rio de Janeiro despite having three games scheduled in the heat of the north.
Similarly, Portugal were based in Campinas – just outside of Sao Paulo in the cooler south of the country – despite two of their matches coming in the sticky surroundings of Salvador and Manaus. Spain spent their free time even further south in Curitiba but their opening game was also in Salvador.
Even giving themselves a couple of extra weeks to come to terms with the tropical conditions might not have saved teams from early exits, but surely the chance to cut down on travel while giving players more opportunity to acclimatise should have been given greater thought.
Some have suggested that games should not have been played at 13:00 local time in the hotter northern cities, but when exactly could those fixtures have otherwise been played? Just as there have been claims by the likes of Louis van Gaal that the tournament has been tailored to meet Brazil’s needs, nor should the competition have been designed to relieve the European outfits of irregular conditions.
The truth is that many of the best teams Europe has to offer have simply not prepared well nor played well. Netherlands have managed to overcome the changeable temperatures and difficult humidity to progress, so too Greece, France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland.
When Spain lost to Chile, they did so at 4pm in the moderate climate of Rio. England tumbled out after losing to Uruguay in a chilly Sao Paulo. Italy were humiliated by Costa Rica in humid Recife, but Prandelli admitted the heat was nothing to do with it.
"It's useless to blame the heat," he conceded. "We have to regain not just the physical energy but the mental energy as well.
"We know about the calendar, we've known it for some time. It's useless trying to find excuses, we're not looking for excuses, we have to be ready at the kick-off."
On the whole, Europe has again failed to travel well, with Spain’s success in the South African winter four years ago looking likely to remain the continent’s only triumph on the road until 2022 at least.
Throw in the poor results of Asian nations and a mixed bag from Africa, and the Americas are set to dominate this World Cup as much for the comparative strength of their preparations as for a familiarity with the surroundings which were always going to provide an advantage.