Would you say that Ireland, Scotland and England play in the same way? They don’t, do they? Their playing styles, not to mention the actual footballing ability of each of those teams is sometimes quite different from the other two.
However, there seems to be a strange sense of regional origin in international football which leads teams everywhere to arrange friendlies against neighbouring countries when you have to play an important game against a given team. For example, for some reason, you often find teams facing Wales or Northern Ireland just before they have to play England. Does a game against Wales really prepare you to face England, or is it just lazy thinking from managers and federation officials? Everyone, from the players to the press, have always seemed to think that it’s a good idea to play against another British team (a word that sometimes is applied to the Republic of Ireland too) when you have a match against one of the other home nations. No thought seems to be given to other more relevant similarities, such as actual tactics deployed, fitness levels, experience of opponents or world ranking. Apparently, defending against Robbie Keane is good practice to face Peter Crouch a few days later, just because they represent two neighbouring islands. Wouldn’t it be better to choose Nikola Zigic’s Serbia instead as a sparring partner?
Anyway, World Cup preparation games are the pinnacle of this spectacle, which is a mixture of the funny and the only-very-slightly-and-unintentionally racist, thinking that everyone in Africa, Asia or Central America play in the same way. Have a look at the list of friendlies played since May 24th, and you’ll see this pattern everywhere, which is even more striking when teams from different continents fly enormous distances to arrange matches against each other.
Algeria, who play England in group C, faced Ireland last Friday, and England, due to open their group against the USA, have just played Mexico. Serbia, who share a group with Germany, Australia and Ghana, have lined up a very neat set of neighbours in Poland, New Zealand and Cameroon as opponents before the finals. In turn, Germany will play Bosnia.
Elsewhere, not just one, but two of South Korea’s rivals in group B, Greece and Nigeria, will have played North Korea before the finals start. The North Koreans only need to add Argentina to effectively invade their neighbours’ whole group. Costa Rica seems to be considered a good stand-in for Mexico by France and for Honduras by Switzerland. Ghana, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast also seem to be playing each others’ European rivals (Denmark, Holland, Portugal, Serbia). And finally, New Zealand will just move a few letters around to turn Slovakia into Slovenia.
I hope everyone learns something from each game, apart from geography...