Ten minutes into Tuesday's Champions League game between Manchester City and Barcelona, TV commentator Martin Tyler told us "There are South Americans everywhere you look on the pitch here."
Quite so -- nine of the 20 field players were South Americans. Nearly half -- five Argentines, three Brazilians and one Uruguayan. Tyler did not follow up on his observation, which was a pity, for he is one of the few TV guys who can bring measured, knowledgeable and objective analyses to the sport.
Why, in a game featuring two of the top European teams, were there so many South American players? And what effect did their presence have on the soccer we were watching?
The answer to the first question is the obvious one: the South Americans were there on merit, because they are considered superior players. Is there a better, more dangerous, attacking trio than Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar? I think it’s OK to widen that, and ask if there has ever been a better trio? While Man City’s Sergio Aguero has proved himself to be one of the deadliest finishers in the game.
Those are the four out-and-out attacking players. Among the five midfielders and defenders, only Barca’s Javier Mascherano could be considered world class. Dani Alves gets into the world-class bracket for those who believe -- with some justification -- that attacking prowess is now a vital part of a fullback’s repertoire.
Man City’s Pablo Zabaleta is of that breed, while Martin Demichelis is a solid, canny center back. Brazilian midfielder Fernando is good to excellent, without too much sparkle.
So it’s at the sharp end of the team, the attacking end, that the South Americans really make their mark. Nothing new here -- when the Italians started the business of importing South American players, in the 1930s, it was invariably the forwards and the creative midfielders they went after (though the biggest prize, the Argentine Alfredo Di Stefano, ended up in Spain).
All of which goes a long way to answering the second question. It is their creative flair and goal-scoring talents that distinguish the South Americans. The goalscoring was certainly on show in the Man City-Barcelona game, with three superb strikes, all from Latinos, two by Suarez, one by Aguero (and there might have been a fourth, had Messi not made a total hash of a penalty kick).
Much is made, in Europe, of how the South Americans must “adapt” to the European game. It sounds a fair enough comment, but it’s not the whole truth. It may even be less than a half-truth. Is it not also true that European teams -- because they clearly value the South Americans -- have had to adapt to the Latin game?
Given the widely differing soccer cultures that populate Europe, this mutual accommodation has been a patchy process with no overall guidelines. Barcelona -- already a Latin team -- should not face too many difficulties in assimilating its South Americans. But that smooth process could hardly work in the Ukraine for Shakhtar Donetsk, where it looks like the policy is to allow a Brazilian takeover. The club has 13 Brazilians on the first-team roster -- but only 12 Ukrainians.
And no doubt a variation would apply in Sicily -- different culture, different language -- where Palermo has five South Americans. Even England has finally caught up with the rest of Europe -- Jose Mourinho now has five Brazilians (including the now-Spanish-naturalized Diego Costa) on his team, and they -- or is it Chelsea? -- seem to be adapting well.
However it is done, it is patently clear that South Americans can play with Europeans, and that the Europeans consider that arrangement one that is well worth taking some trouble (and spending some money) to achieve.
That is the situation in Europe. If only the USA were going through the same process. Of all the soccer countries in the world that need to work out a way of combining the Latin and the European cultures, the USA stands out as the country most in need of finding a way to get it done.
Not to accommodate imported foreign players, but to ensure that its own, home-born players all get an equal chance. Yet the USA has a dismal record of facing the challenge. There seems to be a fear of even mentioning it. Never have I seen a symposium of coaches and other influentials called by, say, US Soccer to discuss it. Never have I seen it featured in any way at all at the NSCAA convention.
The coaching approach, in fact, seems to be that there is only one -- universally agreed upon -- way to play soccer, so you do it the way they tell you. Agreed, trying to make room for varied approaches to the game complicates matters. It also opens the game up to a richer future. And, in the USA, it would give a voice to the massive amount of homegrown Hispanic talent that should surely be catered to. More -- it should be listened to. It has plenty to tell the upper reaches of American soccer about the nature of the sport itself.
Yet the challenge -- a wonderfully stimulating one for coaches, I would have thought -- is barely acknowledged. The man who should be at the center of finding a creative way of combining Latin soccer and what I’ll call Anglo Soccer, and producing American Soccer, is national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
So what does Klinsmann do? Nothing. Or worse than nothing, he goes off looking for non-Americans, preferably Germans, who might, thanks to a conveniently elastic passport situation, make a commitment to play for the USA.
Meanwhile, back home, two USA age-group teams are preparing for World Cups later this year.
In the Concacaf qualifying tournament for the U-17 World Cup, coach Richie Williams’ roster includes 9 Hispanic players among its 18 field players. 50%.
Of the 18 field players on Tab Ramos’s U-20 roster for its Concacaf qualifiers, 6 are Hispanics. 33%.
The 23-man American team that Klinsmann took to Brazil, included 20 field players, of whom 2 were Hispanic. 10%.
At the very least, we should be trying to find out the reasons for that drop-off.