Winds of change blowing at World Cup

World Cup Commentary

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — The mini-revolt that started eight months ago, when Sweden toppled Italy in qualifying and barred the four-time champions from the World Cup for the first time since 1958, is blowing up into a full rebellion at the tournament itself.

Brazil, Argentina and Germany, a virtual World Cup dictatorship that won 11 of the 20 tournaments before this one, have all been overthrown and chased away before the semifinals. That is a World Cup first.

Another indication of the winds of change: Among those taking their place is Belgium, which has never won the title but looks capable of doing so after reaching the semis for only the second time. Its team of seasoned, well-traveled players, with big-name stars who play for big clubs, is making a compelling argument that experience is a cornerstone to success on football’s biggest stage.

Compelling, that is, until one considers the counter-examples of France and England. The youngest teams in the knockout round, they’ve proved that youthful exuberance is a mighty force, too. Exhibit A: The contender for goal of the tournament scored for France by Benjamin Pavard against Argentina. Had the right-back been aged 31 and playing in his fourth World Cup like the careworn Lionel Messi, instead of 22 and playing in his first, perhaps Pavard wouldn’t have dared to attempt the sliced, long-distance strike. His goal oozed freshness and a young person’s can-do attitude.

Also striking: the final four teams are all European. This is only the fifth time that has happened (after 1934, 1966, 1982 and 2006). The absence of other continents in the semis this time in Russia isn’t anecdotal. It reflects how western Europe has become the epicenter of football wealth and innovation and how South America has fallen behind.

Brazil, with the first three of its five titles coming in 1958, ’62 and ’70, and two-time winners Argentina and Uruguay together were a match for Europe at the first 13 World Cups from 1930 to 1986, winning seven of them to Italy, Germany and England’s combined six.

But then came Europe’s football revolution, with the 1992 formation of the Premier League, the European Cup’s rebranding as the lucrative Champions League, the start of the influx of new mega-money from television, sponsors and investors, and the 1995 Bosman ruling that empowered players and freed them to play where they wanted.

Since 1990, the eight World Cups including this one have seen just two South American wins, both by Brazil — and the last of those was back in 2002. The impression, increasingly, is that all that remains of Brazil’s heydays are fumes. After its 7-1 humiliation by Germany in the 2014 semifinals, Brazil was knocked out even earlier this time, losing 2-1 to Belgium in the quarterfinals. Already the only continent to win three World Cups in a row, Europe is now guaranteed to extend that to four.

This World Cup also spelled the beginning of the end of the Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo era. Both in their thirties, the superstars are unlikely to return in Qatar in 2022. With Brazil’s skillful but frustrating Neymar now out, too, the tournament is showing that game-changing players need fully functioning teams around them and cannot carry their nations’ hopes alone.

John Leicester is an Associated Press sports writer.

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