Putting South Africa behind us

The English Premier League season is three weeks old, and the traditional Big Three – Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal – are all off and running. Between them, they have seven wins and two draws. The scores include Chelsea over West Brom 6-0, Chelsea over Wigan 6-0, Man U over Newcastle 3-0, Man U over West Ham 3-0, and Arsenal over Blackpool 6-0.
Three of the brightest stars so far – Joe Hart, Theo Walcott, and Adam Johnson – were narrowly and controversially denied action at the World Cup for England. But many of the more established stars who did perform at the World Cup have also started the season strong.
Watching these stars play such high quality soccer raises this question: what happened in South Africa?
It wasn’t just the big-name English boys – Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Frank Lampard, etc. – who so badly underperformed at the World Cup. Foreign Premier League stars like Florent Malouda, Nicolas Anelka, Patrice Evra, Robin Van Persie, Ferenando Torres (Spain’s only bad player in the tournament), Nemanja Vidic, and Steven Pienaar were also among the EPL’s under-achievers in South Africa. Americans Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey likewise failed to produce their best form.
In fact, only four of the 33 players I rated as the best World Cup performers played in the Premier League last season – Ryan Nelsen, Landon Donovan, Carlos Tevez, and Ricardo Carvalho. And Donovan played only for about three months, on loan from MLS.
Why such a poor EPL showing? The answer that comes to mind first is the arduous nature of the regular seaon schedule that the big English clubs play. Indeed, many of the EPL flops were playing hurt to one degree or another. But clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and Bayern Munich played brutal domestic and European schedules. Yet most of the stars of these teams – the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Sneijder, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Muller, Robben, Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Maicon, and Pique – excelled.
Perhaps, the EPL is that much more physically challenging than the Spanish, Italian, and German leagues. Perhaps the EPL and its stars are overrated. Or maybe this World Cup was a fluke.
Whatever the explanation, I’m just glad that big-time European club soccer is back and, unlike much of what we witnessed in South Africa, as attractive as ever.


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