AF World Cup Unsubstantiated Theory of the Day: Europe the homesick?

Much has been made of the poor performances from Europe’s elite teams. The English, French, Italian, Spanish, and to a lesser extent the Germans, have all struggled thus far, leaving many to search for an explanation of why Europe struggles when the World Cup is not played on European soil. One potential theory worth considering is the Europeans aren’t used to being homesick.

We Americans tend to think of Europeans as the elite cultured type that flow seamlessly between different cultures and are comfortable traveling the world and living in different places. Yet when it comes to football, many Europeans rarely stray from their continent, or even their home countries for very long.

The English, German, Italian, and Spanish sides for instance are made up of players that almost exclusively play in their home countries. Think about it – how often have the English players spent considerable time away from England? They do play in European competitions during the season, but then they are only gone for a couple days. Some also go on short international tours with their clubs, but on these trips they play no-pressure friendlies and are free to socialize and act as tourists.

None of these compare to the lengthy period away from home for a World Cup. Player are now in their fourth week away from home in South Africa and for many that in and of itself is a very disconcerting situation. For instance, John Terry in his press conference about confronting Capello stated that he didn’t commit to spending weeks away from his wife and kids to do this poorly at the tournament. This is coming from England’s most famous philanderer! Terry wouldn’t have made those comments if he was having a great time off the field. With nothing to do and no place to go, these wealthy European players are forced to get along and entertain each other. In the case of the French, this has led to a total team breakdown. In the case of the English, it seems boredom, nervousness, and frustration.

One could say these are just spoiled rich players that can’t handle living without their creature comforts. But you can’t really say fame and fortune are solely to blame, since it is not as if Brazil or Argentina are lacking rich and famous players. I think the difference is that non-European players are used to being homesick and spending months isolated and culturally-foreign settings and for some of these teams it is a refreshing experience to be playing on a team of their countrymen – who speak the same language and have similar cultural backgrounds. In other words, for these countries their experience at the World Cup is actually somewhat of a homecoming.

I know it seems like a pretty weak theory, but contrast how the Europeans are doing vis-a-vis the South Americans, who are used to playing in Europe on the other side of the world. Argentines and Brazilians are used to taking 15hr flights. They are used to feeling alone and isolated in a foreign country with few friends. In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski note how shocking it is how big European clubs treat their foreign players. They note that many of the players don’t speak the local language, don’t know how to buy or register a car in that country, how to put their kids in school, or simply how to get around, and few clubs actually have staff designated to assist them. Kuper and Szymanski note how crazy this is, that a club would spend millions on a player, and then leave a player on his own to culturally sink or swim. Yet they do.

We of course know of Landon Donovan’s early career, where as a younger player Donovan got desperately homesick playing in Germany and ultimately left after a few short months. Donovan was derided at home and nicknamed “Landycakes” for his mental frailties. But think about it, no English player has to go through such an experience. Wayne Rooney wasn’t forced to move to Spain, learn Spanish, and integrate into Spanish culture, he was able to grow as an elite player fewer than 100 miles from his birth place. But while there are many players that end up sinking from the cultural estrangement, there are those that do end up swimming. These are the players that we see on the South American teams – players who have the mental strength to deal with culturally adverse situations.

When you think about the American squad, it is made up of a bunch a guys who largely play and Europe and have had to learn how to culturally adapt. If you watch the US Soccer behind the scenes videos, you can see that there is nothing for these players to do in their free time – they are living on an isolated farm. But you can also tell there is a comfort and camaraderie there.

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4 Responses

  1. Very plausible indeed.

  2. Yeah, I like this. I’d love to hear how you’d account for the African sides’ poor results so far w/r/t this theory.

  3. All the World Cup 2010 Games in South Africa will be streamed live at http://www.WorldCupTV.org 08:06

  4. not only plausible, but somewhat substantiated. the announcers have made much of how long it took Jesus Navas to be willing to venture from home and Bergkamp was famous for not taking flights to international games. Prolly why this WC is as open as 02.

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