It's almost a truism in media coverage of the World Cup that the teams somehow reflect their national character. TV commentators especially love them. Thus the Italians are passionate but unreliable and sometimes self-detsructive; the Brazilians play to a samba beat; the Germans are efficient; the French give up too easily when the going gets tough; the Dutch are neat; Africans are physically strong but incapable of organizing themselves and the English are full of former colonial pretensions they cannot sustain.
Decades ago, it's true that different nations had radically different styles of play. The English relied on hoofing long balls upfield and pumping high crosses into the goalmouth where burly center forwards would try to get their heads to them. Continentals as we called them, played short, prissy passes and slowed the game down. Playing as they often did in hot climes instead of pouring rain, their game was all about conserving energy while preening with flashes of skill. We in England distrusted skill. It was somehow -- foreign. Anyway our fields were too muddy to think about anything too fancy.
When the 1966 World Cup took place in England, we were stunned by the sight of players writhing around in agony whenever they were fouled. We'd never seen such a thing before. English players kept stiff upper lips and jumped straight to their feet. Likewise for extravagant celebrations after goals which seemed -- unmanly. (Personal admission: I still hate the sight of players writhing in simulated agony).
In those days we rarely saw foreign stars. No foreigners played in our leagues and few of our players ventured overseas. We played most of our internationals against Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who played the same as us. The BBC rarely screened games live. We watched the highlights on the BBC's "Match of the Day" at 10 pm, on Saturday night and on ITV's "The Big Match" at 2 pm the following day. We never, ever saw matches from the Spanish, Italian or any other foreign league.
It's different today. The game is truly multinational. The English Premier League, the most popular in the world, has players from almost every member of the United Nations. Top teams like Arsenal and Chelsea regularly field teams with only one or two Englishmen. Last season, Arsenal's roster had players from Spain, Russia, Denmark, France, Ivory Coast, Brazil, Poland, Italy, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Cameroon, the Netherlands, Mexico and Belgium. Internazionale of Milan recently won the Eufa Champions League, the top prize in European club football, without a single Italian in their starting line-up. Real Madrid boasts stars from Brazil, Portugal, Poland, France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Argentina and Mali. Players are constantly transferring between the top clubs. Thus, a player like Barcelona's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, born in Sweden of a Bosnian father and Croatian mother, started with his local team Malmo, then played for Ajax Amsterdam, Juventus of Turin, Internazionale of Milan and Barcelona. He may be on the move again soon.
Moreover, all these players compete frequently against each other and know each other intimately. Today's teammate becomes tomorrow's rival. Coaching has also become internationalized. Arguably, the top club coach in Europe is Jose Mourinho, a Portuguese, known as "The Special One," who led Porto to the UEFA Championship, coached Chelsea in London to two championships, led Inter Milan to glory and has now transferred to Real Madrid.
Stylistically, the game has become homogeneous. Teams play in relatively few different formations, all of which are well-known to all. I couldn't discern any difference between the way Denmark played in the World Cup and the way Japan played -- except that Japan played better.
Players in the top leagues all have a similar level of fitness and all employ the top dieticians, strength trainers and medical advisers.
The level of technical skill for all the top leagues is a far cry from when I was a kid -- it is uniformly excellent. Players have become ued to performing on perfectly groomed playing surfaces, unlike the plowed fields of my youth.
So if national characteristics don't matter, what does determine World Cup success? In my view, it comes down to two main factors:
1) A country's ability to spot and develop soccer talent. According to the Guardian, "Spain, the European champions, have 750 Grade A Uefa-trained coaches, compared to under 150 in England. All those English tutors instruct fully-grown men while in Spain 640 of the 750 teach five-year-olds and up." The result has been a "golden generation" of Spanish players capable of mounting a challenge for the World Cup. Why did Spain beat Portugal in the round of 16? It was because Portugal had only one bona fide star surrounded by a team of solid but unremarkable players, while Spain had several.
Why did Germany beat England? Because England put forth a team of aging players, some talented but others displaying glaring weaknesses who visibly wilted when put under pressure by a German formation that was a blend of youth and experience capable of playing with blinding speed.
The amount of talent a country has is partly but not wholly determined by population. It's always going to be hard for a country like Paraguay with a population of 6.2 million to compete with the likes of Brazil with 192 million. But Holland with a population of 18 million has an excellent youth academy system and constantly turns out wonderful teams full of talented stars.
2) The ability of the coach to organize the players at his disposal around a system that exploits their talents to the maximum, to meld them into a real team instead of a collection of individuals and to draw up game plans to meet the specific threats posed by the opposition.
In other words, it's not about ethnicity or nationality. The World Cup will be won by the team with the best players and the best coach executing the best strategy. Simple as that.