What Does the Future Hold for Some of International Football's Star Nations?
The lyrics in the song "Nothing Lasts Forever" by Echo & the Bunnymen are in some ways perhaps the perfect microcosmic way of viewing international football:
I want it now, I want it now
Not the promises of what tomorrow brings
I need to live in dreams today
I'm tired of the song that sorrow sings
And I want more than I can get...
There are those international sides, always seemingly there or thereabouts at major tournaments, who want every available success as soon as they can get it. They have no time to wait, no interest in tomorrow and are there, looking to take success for their own today, at every available opportunity: As examples, how about Germany?
Of course there are also those who are currently at the pinnacle. They've reached their dreams and are very much enjoying living in them. But of course, they will still make that move for more, perhaps even more than even they, in all their greatness can achieve. The modern-day Spain fit the bill and of course the eternal contenders who have offered more glimpses at greatness than any other, five-time World champions Brazil.
Additionally, there are those who are looking to the future. They've got capabilities in the present, a precocious talent, but are still waiting to truly flourish with the hopes that the best may still be yet to come—Belgium perhaps?
And then there are also those who are tired. For so long they've been talking of challenging, but after every near miss and failure, their winning song becomes more weary and sorrowful. Certainly the song continues playing, but alas, with ever-dwindling hope: England if you will, and, maybe if we're being rather cruel, three-time beaten World Cup finalists, Netherlands.
In 10 years time, who will top the World game?
But the beauty of international football, away from the escalating finances of the club game, is that it is an always moving beast. Things are always subject to change.
Whether by the luck of a generation thrown together, the careful planning of a nationally resourced centre of excellence or simply through intelligent club schemes interlinked with a national association, good international teams are always a possibility in the future, even when the present may look bleak; just as a short-term blip can always be just around the corner to derail even the most highly-prized asset.
Nonetheless, while they may well be subject to change, equally the notion remains that nothing ever changes. The levels at which international sides always play often remain the same (the separating of territories and devolution of leagues aside). Certainly there may be a slight rise every now and then for some, but looking at the long term, the top sides remain at the highest level, the seconds at theirs and so on until you get down to the likes of San Marino at the very depths.
Therefore, with all that being said, what can we expect from some of international football's biggest nations in years to come?
Can we expect to see them at a similar level to now, or will any make strides to stand at the head of the world game?
Indeed, will any drop off the pace?
With the focus on Europe—Spain, France, Germany, Netherlands, England and Belgium—and South American—Brazil and Argentina—here's a look at what could happen to some international sides in the coming years:
Having been at the pinnacle of the international game since Luis Aragones led them to success at Euro 2008, La Roja have reversed their "nearly-men" tag with the tiki-taka stylings of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and co, under the stewardship of Vicente del Bosque.
And although the 2014 World Cup is likely to be the final tournament for a couple of the older heads—Xavi, David Villa maybe Xabi Alonso—there are a number of the World Cup-winning core, such as Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas with a few more years left in them at the top level.
Throw in the young talent waiting in the wings to step up, if not for Brazil 2014 then certainly for the 2016 European Championships—a number from this summer's Under-21 European Championship winners, the likes of Isco, Inigo Martinez, Thiago Alcantara and Asier Illaramendi—and those currently starring in the under-20s and below—Oliver Torres, Jese and Gerard Deulofeu to name but three—and Spain will likely continue to find themselves fighting for the international game's top honours in the immediate years to come.
Since their Zinedine Zidane-inspired World Cup and European Championship successes at the turn of the millennium, Les Bleus have endured something of a fall from grace in recent times. Certainly 2010 was a debacle with the awful performances in South Africa and the apparent uprising against Coach Raymond Domenech, while a current FIFA ranking of 25 shows how they've laboured in recent times under Didier Deschamps.
Nonetheless, they've had their ups and downs in international football before. The Golden Generation of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse of the '80s—reaching two World Cup semi-finals and winning the 1984 European Championships—were succeeded by a group who failed to qualify for either of the next two World Cups, before their success in 1998.
This summer saw the under-20 squad win the World Cup in Turkey, and that's a reason to be positive for the future. The growth of Paul Pogba, recipient of the Golden Ball at that tournament, into a key figure at senior level bodes well, as does the progression of a number of talents, such as Geoffrey Kondogbia, Raphael Varane, Lucas Digne and the controversial Florian Thauvin.
Additionally, with Hugo Lloris set to keep goal for the next 10 years and the likes of Karim Benzema, Moussa Sissoko and Clement Grenier still approaching their prime, expect Les Tricolores to challenge for honours once again, likely starting at Euro 2016 with France playing host.
Perhaps the country who expects to win the World Cup every time they compete, Brazil's last success came in 2002—a third successive final appearance—and since then two quarter-final appearances have led to the sackings of two managers (with a 2007 Copa America success sandwiched between).
The only side to have won the World Cup on four different continents, the Selecao will have an excellent chance next summer when they host the competition. Anyone doubting their credentials under Luiz Felipe Scolari need only look at their success in this summer's Confederations Cup and most notably their decimation of Spain in the final.
The large proportion of the current squad features players in their mid-early 20s, and the likes of Neymar, Oscar and Lucas Moura are only going to improve moving forward; indeed most of the present squad will likely be at the 2018 World Cup also—only goalkeeper Julio Cesar and defender Dani Alves from the starting XI will likely miss out.
As such, a team that throughout time have always been there or thereabouts at major tournaments, will be so again in coming campaigns with their current crop of stars.
If Brazil are always there or thereabouts at major tournaments, then what of the three-time world champions Germany, a country who throughout the annuls of time have made their way to the semi-finals or better more than any other nation (12).
The byword for consistency in the international game, Die Mannschaft have taken the bronze medal at each of the last two World Cups, while emerging as beaten finalists in 2002; indeed in the eight tournaments since 1978, they've made six of the last eight semi-finals.
Now, Joachim Loew's side look set to challenge for the international crown once more in 2014, and, with a squad where only 68-goal Miroslav Klose is in his 30s featuring a plethora of young midfield talent—Mesut Oezil, Mario Goetze, Julian Draxler, Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos et al—the smart money will be on them not only challenging next summer, but at the following European Championships in France and at the 2018 tournament in Russia.
And with Bundesliga clubs continuing to look to develop their own youth talent, their remarkable consistency at international level is only likely to continue in the next 10 to 15 years.
Perhaps the biggest nearly-men of the international game, nine World Cup appearances have yielded three final appearances, but still the Oranje are without a maiden success.
Always they play with pomp and swagger, but the ability to self-destruct lurks in the background. Witness the 2012 European Championships and the qualification process for the 2002 World Cup as proof—the latter coming either side of successive European Championship semi-finals.
After an ageing side rather self-destructed under Bert van Marwijk at Euro 2012, Louis van Gaal has seen fit to plan for the future with a squad based heavily on youth and the next generation, with the emergence of players particularly from the major Eredivisie clubs—Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord. The likes of Adam Maher, Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi and Kevin Strootman have all emerged as key players, both for the modern day and the coming years.
Certainly it's a squad being pieced together with the future in mind, but when the experienced match-winners—Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder—depart the scene, will Netherlands have enough attacking threat to trouble the best?
Without wishing to sound overly critical, the standard of league football in Argentina has really dropped in the last 10 years or so. The domestic game is no longer able to compete with the financial rewards in either Europe or Brazil, meaning it is becoming increasingly difficult to judge the true quality of Argentine prospects until they move abroad.
With that being said, Le Albiceleste are presently in rude health and will head to Brazil next summer among the favourites. Led by Lionel Messi, Alejandro Sabella's side have been irrepressible in qualifying and have risen to second in the FIFA rankings. Quarter-finalists at each of the last two World Cups, the two-time world champions, with the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano and Angel di Maria among their number, will be looking to replicate their 1978 and '86 successes in Brazil.
The immediate future under the astute Sabella, featuring Messi and company looks extremely bright, both for the World Cup next summer and the following year's Copa America—although they haven't succeeded in their main continental tournament since 1993.
However, in a squad where at present only Erik Lamela and Marcos Rojo are under 25, it's difficult to gauge exactly what the next 10 to 15 years may hold.
The supposed Golden Generation came and, despite much fanfare, never conquered. Quarter-finals at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and also at Euro 2004 and 2012 are the sum of their achievements.
With the imminent departure of such important players, the mantle needs to be grasped by young pretenders like Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley and the remaining star, Wayne Rooney. However, with the number of English players in the Premier League dwindling ever more, Roy Hodgson's job of emulating what has gone in the 12 years before looks increasingly difficult.
Having been consistently around the top eight at recent major tournaments without ever really looking like getting any further whenever they've come up against the big powers of international football, it looks doubtful that future squads will be able to better the performances of the current generation when they lose such world-class performers as Gerrard, Lampard and Cole.
And with England supporters seemingly becoming more disdainful towards the running of the national side, it does look as though they could be set for a slump on the international stage ala 1974 to 1982.
Up to sixth in the FIFA rankings and on the precipice of qualification for next summer's World Cup, Marc Wilmots' Belgium look on the cusp of an international renaissance. Since finishing fourth at the 1986 World Cup in the days of Enzo Scifo, they've dropped off the pace since, failing to qualify for either of the last two World Cups and only making one of the last seven European Championships, when they happened to be co-hosts.
Nevertheless, a young squad featuring a number of uber-talented players in their early-mid 20s—the likes of Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany and Christian Benteke—look as though they have the potential to challenge at the top of the international game in the coming years.
Additionally, with the much vaunted youth systems of the likes of Anderlecht and Standard Liege continuing to unearth talent—the likes of Dennis Praet, Massimo Bruno and Michy Batshuayi to name but three—the future beyond that looks bright also.
As such, Belgium are one to keep an eye on in the coming five years certainly. However, whether it is just another flash in the pan or the start of something more, only time will tell.
I'm on the Twitter: @AA_Richards
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