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How Globalization Undermines Soccer's Elite

The international movement of talent has helped level the playing field of top national soccer teams. Among other things, it has also produced the most wide-open World Cup in memory.

Argentina's Fernando Gago fights for the ball with Iran's Ehsan Hajsafi during a World Cup group match at the Estadio Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on June 21, 2014.
Argentina's Fernando Gago fights for the ball with Iran's Ehsan Hajsafi during a World Cup group match at the Estadio Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on June 21, 2014.
Ricardo Kirschbaum

BUENOS AIRES— Of the 22 players who took the field in the Argentina-Switzerland match in the last World Cup round, only one plays in his national league. Argentine midfielder Fernando Gago, who has had stints in the Spanish League with Real Madrid and Valencia, now plays for Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. All the rest, including replacement players, play for the world's top league teams, especially the European ones.

One conclusion we can draw from what we have seen in the World Cup so far is that there is a striking parity in both playing level and tactics among teams, and this includes those earlier singled out as much weaker compared to the traditional powers.

Another notable fact is that of the eight second-round matches, only three lasted 90 minutes, with the victories of France, Colombia and Netherlands. The rest continued into extra time and two needed penalties to find out who would advance into the next round.

This leveling of the playing field is also a result of the physical training and tactics imposed by experienced coacheswith international experience.

A considerable portion of those playing in the World Cup compete in the higly competitive European leagues. At the same time, migration for political and economic reasons has renewed the players' pool in several countries. The main star on the Swiss team was born in Kosovo, and plays for Bayern Munich.

And there are other players either born in or with close families ties to Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Italy, Turkey, Bosnia and Croatia, in addition to those from Switzerland!

Soccer, it is fair to say, is a phenomenon that quite elegantly illustrates the process of globalization. Its expansion and impact are startling in depth and scale. It permeates entire societies.

Most of the teams are no longer primarily expressions of a local brand of futbol, but of another, superlative (and supranational) level. Argentine players, to cite an example, show how much their skills have developed in other climes.

If this levelling is sustained in time, soccer may go through a very significant change, because the winning of World Cups will cease to be the sole prerogative of the traditional "powers."

The early elimination of England, Italy, Spain - the last world champion - and the very similar capabilities the teams have shown, suggest auspicious prospects for the game. Soccer is effectively being democratized, and the weak are strengthening their chances for victory.

Still, no one can deny that certain teams have stars, like Argentina's dazzling Lionel Messi, who even on bad days can still help the old guard of rising above the rest.

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