Alexander the Great’s Macedonian team is still the gold standard by which other teams must be measured. Alex was the manager, the captain, highest scorer, and, if rumours are to be believed, masseuse, for the fifteen seasons he played. He and his team (he was ever present) won championship after championship on an unprecedented three continents. Even before the Macedonians dubiously “incorporated” the Greek back four (FIFA rules on playing for country of birth are a facet of the modern game), Alex was the true ‘special one’. Alex’s indispensability to his team evidenced by the fact that after his death, the players could not decide upon a new captain. Sadly, his great team were reduced to playing in local tournaments against one another.
Consistently, strong teams have emerged from Europe. The Romans blazed the trail, dominating the European game for four centuries. As well as winning in Italy, they won in Spain, France, England, Greece, Croatia, Albania and Turkey. However, after refusing to play the Scots and taking a pasting in Germany they never had the same air of invincibility. Boardroom wrangles ensued and they threatened to slip into oblivion. Once all the spats, essentially about poor chairman selection, were cleared up, the Second Roman team bounced back to take Europe by storm again.
At the time it seemed like a gamble to set themselves up as the game’s governing body. But it worked. The Romans were responsible for the adoption of many of the games salient features: they financed the building of supporters’ centres across Europe; they introduced the system of numbering players; they introduced the first red card for persistent offenders; they organised and selected national teams including transferring captains from nation to nation; they trained and paid for all referees, and arranged most of the games, by 1200AD all Western Europe was playing the Roman game. All was not well however, the supporters began to complain about transparency and refereeing standards, finally, protesters organised a breakaway league beginning in Germany; this protest spread to include most of Northern Europe. The bitterest disagreements were over the nature of what was served at half time, whether referees were allowed to have sex, and translations of the rulebook into local vernacular languages.
This behemoth in Italy meant that Italy herself never managed to put out a national team of her own, a crying shame when you consider the talent they had at their disposal. Columbus, for example, was an Italian by birth but chose to play for Spain, for a while it looked like Spain, with Columbus taking gold cup after gold cup abroad, would be the team to beat, but they flattered to deceive. They were undone by the vagaries of the weather, poor tactical choices and because the Northern European teams copied their style, and used it more efficiently. Many Spanish will correctly point to the theft of large quantities of gold by the Northern Europeans as a contributory factor in their demise, but since the Spanish nicked it from the South Americans in the first place…
From the dawn of the Spanish period the game changed, with the discovery of large training camps teams could now practise in secret. Where before defence had been the key, now teams played an expansive game. For more than 200 years European teams engaged each other, in the main, on the training pitches of the World. The Europeans taught the world to play the game: by soundly beating them again, and again.
Then, like a breath of fresh air to the stagnant European scene: Bonaparte! Brutally offensive, insistent in both where and how the game was to be played; he took his French team to dizzying heights, whenever he was on the pitch the French were unstoppable. As his team rampaged through Europe the French selection committee ceded all decisions to Bonaparte. It looked like Bonaparte might achieve the first ever, clean sweep of Europe. With this dream in mind, Bonaparte, fool-hardily chose to play Russia, on frozen pitches in the middle of winter. The truth is that the Russians were beaten in their own back yard, but Bonaparte’s boys had forgotten their long johns. The bitter winter weather shrivelled the French, and the Russians wouldn’t allow their opponents into their heated dressing room at full time. For Bonaparte this was to be the end of his attempt at European unification. His legacy is nowadays clouded by what happened in the twilight of his career: As he got older he became more injury prone, often having to rest during games. The recently formed British team jointly with the Dutch and Germans, bored him into falling asleep during a vital game in Belgium, Bonaparte was beaten and forced into a tropical retirement.
Once the Americans started to play, the game wasn’t the same. Europe was undone by what had given it strength. Where before the divisions in Europe made each team stronger, now the younger, quicker, and more numerous Americans made use of the, “unlimited substitution,” rule that they cunningly proposed to swamp the national teams of Europe. The Americans, whenever they played in Europe, waited for the teams to tire before joining in when everybody had run out of substitutes; the tournaments were turned into a procession. All that time the Europeans thought nobody was watching their training sessions, but the Americans were just watching and learning.