The qualifying rounds for the 2018 World Cup are finally complete. We now know the 32 teams that will compete.
The list contains most of the usual suspects, but three will be missing in Russia: Italy, Holland, and the U.S.
The absence of the U.S. (for the first time since 1986) is surprising only because the competition in North America is so weak. Our team is crap and doesn’t deserve a place in the tournament.
Holland finished second at 2010 World Cup and third in 2014, so its failure to qualify is surprising. However, let’s remember that Hollandis a nation of only 17 million. There will be periods when it produces astonishing players — e.g., the 1970s (Cruyff, Neeskens, and the other stars of the “Clockwork Orange”); the late 1980s and early 1990s (van Basten, Gullit, Ronald Koeman, etc.) and to a lesser extent, the early 2010s (Robben, van Persie, and Sneijder). But every generation won’t be a “golden” one. The current generation is bronze, at best.
The real shocker is Italy. The Italians haven’t failed to qualify since 1958. Since then, they have won the Cup twice and twice finished second.
Now, however, the cupboard is almost bare. As I watched Sweden beat out Italy in a playoff, I realized (1) that Italy had no international stars in midfield or attack and (2) that its defensive stars — Buffon, Bonucci, Chiellini, and (arguably) Barzagli — are all in their 30s. (Buffon, Chiellini, and Barzagli retired from international football following the failure to qualify. They have belted out the Italian national anthem together for the last time, at least on the world stage).
Italy’s population is 60 million. Why has the talent dried up?
One theory is lack of diversity. The French team is full of black players, and the vast majority of the young talent (e.g. Coman, Mbappe, Lemar and Dembele) on which so much hope rests, is black.
Ten years ago, the Germany’s team seemed to be in decline, relatively speaking. Since then, an influx of players of Turkish and African descent (e.g., Ozil, Khedira, and Boateng; and now Rudiger, Sane, and Can) helped the Germans return to the top.
Switzerland is another example. The Swiss have gradually become a minor power, led by Shaqiri, Xhaka, Seferovic, Mehmedi, and Rodriguez.
There has been no such influx to the Italian team. The great black hope, Balotelli, turned out to be a head case. He was left out of the Euro 2016 squad and, to my knowledge, hasn’t been called up since.
Among the 14 players who appeared in the exercise in futility that was the final qualifying match, there was a naturalized Brazilian and an Italian of Egyptian descent who came on as a substitute (neither all that good). There was no black player.
Current immigration patterns will remedy the problem in the next ten years, though even a World Cup victory would be unlikely to leave most Italians happy with the bargain.
Spain seems like a good counterexample to my “diversity” theory. We’ll see whether the Spanish, no longer kings of world football, can maintain their place near top.
In most contexts, the case that “diversity” improves quality is vastly overstated. In international soccer, the case seems quite solid.
UPDATE: Iceland is the best example of a European country whose soccer team is getting along quite well without diversity. A nation of 330,000 souls, Iceland finished in the top eight at Euro 2016 and has now qualified for its first World Cup.
The Iceland squad was as non-diverse as a typical South Korea team, where it seems like half the players are named Lee or Park. Iceland’s Euro 2016 team featured two Sigurdssons and two Bjarnasons.
The only diversity was that some players’ names ended in “son” and the rest in “sson” except for one “sen.”