Europe's rich clubs blamed for World Cup woes

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — No European team has yet matched the standards set by Brazil and Argentina at this year's World Cup, and Italian soccer federation president Giancarlo Abete says he knows why.

Europe's traditional big six of Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, France and England have mustered only four wins between them in the tournament's first 11 days — and the Dutch provided two of them without hitting anything like top gear.

Abete blamed Europe's big clubs, awash with money from lucrative broadcast contracts, for failing to develop young players good enough for international soccer.

"If you look at this World Cup you'll realize that all the big European teams are having problems," Abete said. "Between Spain, France, England, Germany and Italy, we've only managed one win. Apart from the Netherlands, only Central and South American teams are smiling.

"The clubs have more power than the federations."

While the problems facing France and England have much to do with player unrest, that cannot explain all their ills.

Factor in defending champion Italy's dispiriting 1-1 draw with New Zealand and three-time winner Germany's 1-0 loss to Serbia, and Abete may have a point.

Nine players in Italy's squad are 30 or over, led by 36-year-old captain Fabio Cannavaro, who lifted the World Cup trophy four years ago but was responsible in part for both of the goals Italy has allowed so far.

UEFA president Michel Platini is attempting to swing the balance back in favor of national associations and young players by enforcing minimum quotas on so-called homegrown players.

But Abete is unconvinced.

"Real Madrid has a budget eight times that of the Spanish federation," Abete said. "Nobody can stop a club" from relying on a proven champion from another country, rather than a promising young player Spanish player "not even Platini."

"All we can do is try to encourage coaches to put more faith in younger players. That's it."

The problem is particularly acute in England, which has a strong starting 11 but has been severely disrupted by injuries to Rio Ferdinand and Gareth Barry.

Ferdinand, the team's captain, is missing the tournament, while Barry sat out the opening 1-1 draw with the United States and looked rusty in the dismal 0-0 draw against Algeria.

More than half the players in the Premier League are from overseas and even the Football Association's head of development, Trevor Brooking, said that the national team faces greater problems still once the current generation of players fade.

Brooking said England is producing talented youngsters, citing last month's victory over Spain in the final of the under-17 European Championship, but these players struggle to get the topflight experience necessary to make the leap into the national side.

"Every place in the league is worth 750,000 pounds ($1.1 million), so even at the end of season you don't get a chance to try out youngsters because you might lose three places and cost yourself 2 million pounds ($3 million) in the transfer budget," Brooking said.

Arsenal and Chelsea have both fielded entire teams of overseas players, and Arsenal, a regular in the Premier League's top four, did not provide a single player to England's 23-man World Cup squad.

South American nations may be benefiting from the relative financial weakness of their clubs.

Even continental giants such as Boca Juniors, Santos and River Plate struggle to hold onto their best players once heads are turned by the lure of Champions League soccer and lucrative offers from European clubs.

That forces them to invest heavily in young players, with soccer a traditional route out of poverty for many.

Inter Milan won the Champions League final last month without a single Italian player in its starting lineup, but with four Argentines and three Brazilians.

Julio Cesar, Maicon and Lucio have helped Brazil win its opening two group games at the World Cup, while Argentina has such depth that coach Diego Maradona felt able to leave Inter's Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso out of his squad.

Argentina has also won both its games, beating Nigeria 1-0 before clicking into gear with a 4-1 victory over South Korea.

European clubs pay their players' enormous salaries and feel entitled to get the best out of them before turning them over to the national associations. The result of all this is that Europe could be headed for its lowest representation in the round of 16 since the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams in 1998.

At least European champion Spain and highly ranked Portugal finally sprang to life Monday. Spain recovered from its shocking 1-0 loss to Switzerland with a 2-0 win over Honduras, and Portugal came up with a 7-0 rout of a physically overwhelmed North Korea.

Greece, Slovenia, Serbia, Switzerland and Denmark each have one victory to take Europe's tally to 10 from 26 games.

But only the Spanish and Portuguese, with Cristiano Ronaldo in their lineup, can have realistic aspirations of making it all the way to the July 11 final at Soccer City in Johannesburg.

"You see that any day any team can win," Spain striker Fernando Torres said. "We're seeing that the favorites are having a lot of problems winning and the motive is clear: in a World Cup everything is much more even. The surprises have come very early this time."


AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf and Associated Press writer Pan Pylas contributed to this report.