International tournaments have a way of rendering superhuman athletes look like mere flesh-and-blood mortals. The haunted look on the face of France’s Kylian Mbappé, probably the most gifted footballer in the world today, as Les Blues were sent crashing out of Euro 2020 by Switzerland, told its own story. The 22-year-old has had a tournament to forget, but it all came crashing down after a terrible performance in the Round of 16 game on 28 June, capped by the calamitous penalty kick miss that sent Switzerland into the quarter-finals.
Cristiano Ronaldo had looked similarly shattered the day before, when Portugal were sent out of Euro 2020 by a superb Belgium side. However, Ronaldo himself couldn’t have done more. He had dragged the defending European champions out of the group phase by sheer dint of will and personal brilliance. Over four games, he had scored 5 goals and assisted one for Portugal.
Ultimately, both Ronaldo and Mbappé were let down by the fact that their teams had forgotten how to defend; by the fact that both France and Portugal had relied too much on individual brilliance and too little on defensive organisation and overall balance. It’s not just them. To various extents Germany, the Netherlands and Spain have all been defensively fragile through the tournament. This despite the fact that each of these teams boast of defenders who are some of the best in the world, and play for Europe’s elite clubs. Occasions such as Euro 2020 shouldn’t be fazing them.
And yet, here they are, conceding goals by the bucketloads, some of them due to plain lazy defending. Exhibit A: Barcelona and France centre-back Clément Lengelet’s non-challenge as Switzerland’s Haris Seferović towered over him to give the Swiss the lead. Exhibit B: the comical own goal by Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon, who let a routine backpass slide under his foot and only managed to nudge it into his own goal. Spain went on to overturn Croatia’s lead with three fine goals from Cesar Azpilicueta, Pablo Sarabia and Ferran Torres. But slack defending allowed Croatia to improbably come from two goals down in six minutes to force the game into extra time. Ultimately, Spain somehow won a game that they could have easily lost, and if they’d done so, they’d have had their defence to blame.
The reason behind this trend of slack defending can be traced to European club football. The badly skewed power and financial dynamics between clubs in the major European leagues have seen the rise of super clubs who have been spending their way to league domination for years. Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain; Juventus in Italy; Bayern Munich in Germany; Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in France; and Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea in England have been hoovering up attacking talent at eye-watering prices.
Buoyed by TV and advertising money, tournaments such as the UEFA Champions League have turned into multi-million dollar televised spectacles where the biggest clubs are expected to hurtle against each other in wave after wave of attacks. The art of defending has, as a result, taken a backseat. The Barcelona vs Liverpool double-header (Liverpool won 4-3 on aggregate) in the 2018-2019 Champions League semi-finals or the PSG vs Barcelona home and away games (Barcelona won 6-5 on aggregate) in the 2016-17 Champions League group phase are symptomatic of this.
Most of these clubs are so dominant in their national leagues due to their financial clout, that the need to defend often takes a back seat. The stats speak for themselves: PSG have won 7 Ligue 1 titles between 2013-2020, Juventus have won 9 Serie A titles between 2012-2020, Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga 17 times between 1999-2021. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea have, between them, won the Premier League 23 time in the last 30 years. The gap between the richest clubs and the rest is so wide that you can’t really call this a fair competition. The only semblance of an even playing ground emerges in the knockout phases of the Champions League, when the biggest clubs slug it out amongst themselves like drunken prizefighters, defending be damned.
Euro 2020 is showing just how hollow this kind of footballing supremacy ultimately is. When it comes to international football, reputation is nothing, only the game matters. But coasting on reputation, star defenders, goalkeepers, midfielders and strikers, who ply their trade at Europe’s biggest clubs, are coming up short against canny, spirited opposition. In club football terms, Switzerland’s defeat of France is akin to Wolverhampton Wanderers defeating Real Madrid in the Champions League. The irony is made even sweeter by the fact that a France team containing the likes of Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspurs), Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid), Benjamin Pavard, Kingsley Coman (both Bayern Munich), Paul Pogba (Manchester United), N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea), Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) and Kylian Mbappé (PSG) should be a match for the biggest club sides in the world. By comparison, the highest profile player in the Swiss team is Xherdan Shaqiri, who mostly warms the substitutes’ bench for Liverpool.
Also Read: Europe's football clubs face financial peril
If Europe’s top national sides are struggling, the reason for that is the successful takeover of European club football by powerful international financial interests, from the petro dollars of middle east kingdoms to Russian oligarchs to American capitalist sports franchises. When money talks, the meat-and-potatoes art of defending takes a backseat to the financial glamour of constant attack-as-entertainment. What also takes a backseat are the international ambitions of Europe’s top footballing nations.