By Paul Gardner
Looking at the preliminary World Cup squads, there are certainly some selections and omissions that you could call "surprises."
Except in the case of Brazil, of course. No one should ever be surprised at who is, and is not on the Brazilian roster. This is a country with so many good players that the joke, if that’s what it is, has been around for decades that Brazil should be allowed to enter two teams for the world cup qualifiers. Both would qualify with ease, of course, everyone would like what they were watching, but no one would like the idea of a Brazil-1 vs. Brazil-2 final -- which is what we’d probably get.
So, it is not really a surprise that Ronaldinho and Pato are not in the Brazil squad. You can apply the usual sort of reasoning if you like -- that Ronaldinho is getting too old and that Pato is not yet old enough -- but those are not the real reasons. Brazil can turn its back on players who would glide into any other World Cup squad simply because it always has alternatives who are just as good.
Remember: there was a moment when even Pele was not regarded as sacrosanct when it came to the national team -- he was dropped from the 1970 team by then coach Joao Saldanha. Admittedly, Pele got the better of this one, for Saldanha was quickly replaced by Mario Zagalo, and Pele led a magnificent Brazilian team to World Cup triumph. More recently, a similar situation arose with Romario, one of the finest goalscorers of the modern game, who was dropped by coach Carlos Alberto Parreira during the qualifiers for the 1994 tournament. Parreira had to bring him back, and Brazil won the World Cup.
The point being that both coaches felt there were adequate replacements for the superstars. Not quite replacements -- Brazil produces so many unique, individualistic players, that a mere replacement is never what you get. The new guy always brings something different, something original.
So we don’t get Ronaldinho and Pato. But we do get Grafite (who’s 31, a year older than Ronaldinho) and Nilmar, and there’s remarkable individual skill to be found in both those players. We also don’t get the wonderfully lively defender Marcelo, who has been playing so well for Real Madrid. Another player not needed by Brazil is defender Alex, who has just played a significant role in helping Chelsea to win the English Premier League.
Alex you could describe as a rugged defender, I suppose -- which brings me to a name that did surprise me -- in the roster announced by Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk. That of "rugged defender" Khalid Boulahrouz. I’m surprised twice over, in fact. Firstly because Boulahrouz's disgraceful performance against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup ought to be reason enough to keep him out of any national team worthy of respect. And secondly because of the recent outburst of van Marwijk who -- having seen one of his own players, Nigel de Jong, break the leg of the USA’s Stuart Holden, was remarkably outspoken in his criticism both of de Jong and of violent play
As for the USA -- well, Bob Bradley is hardly the sort of guy from whom you expect surprises, or indeed anything unusual. True to form, then, Bradley offers nothing different. Which, while it may not be exciting, is probably the best route for the USA. Bradley has spent four years building up a solid team that won its qualifying group, so there’s no need for dramatic moves. Anyway, where would the surprises come from? The USA is hardly Brazil -- there are not dozens of as-good-as or better-than candidates waiting to get their chance. For that matter, I don't expect any surprises when Bradley makes his final cuts. It will be the most-recently capped players who go.
Meaning that Bradley will rely on experience -- and in that he is doing the sensible, the soccer-sensible and the statistically sensible thing. One thing we do know: Unless you’re another Pele -- a sensation in the World Cup at age 17 -- then the tournament is not a showcase for young players. Rather the opposite, in fact. For there is a genuine surprise here -- I mean I’m always surprised by it -- and that is the average age of World Cup winning teams. These are very mature and experienced players.
At the last final, in 2006, the 22 Italian and French starters had an average age of nearly 30, and there wasn’t a teenager to be seen -- the closest was France’s Franck Ribery, at age 25. At least that’s good news for Freddy Adu, judged -- rightly, I believe -- by Bradley to be not good enough for this roster, but still only 20.
The USA would now seem to have grown up to the point where over half of its players are playing overseas, all of them in Europe. The top European countries do not export many players. All the players on the English roster play for English teams. Spain includes only four foreign-based players, Germany and Italy one each.
But for non-European countries, to have players playing in Europe is considered a good thing. Virtually all of the players for top African countries such as Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria play for foreign clubs. Such a situation does not seem to damage a team’s chances. Certainly not Brazil’s, which has been coping with it for decades; on the roster just announced by Coach Dunga there are only three players with Brazilian clubs.
I'm tempted to say that Diego Maradona has conjured up something of a surprise here by including 10 domestic players -- but Maradona’s short coaching career has been festooned with what look like just plain weird decisions, so that nothing he does comes as a surprise any more.