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At World Cup, it's all about desire now

sports Updated: Jun 26, 2010 12:20 IST

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One of the most arrogant pronouncements so far of the World Cup came from Steven Gerrard. Trying to explain how lowly Algeria managed to restrict England's more competent footballers to a goalless tie, the English captain said the North Africans played as though they were competing in the World Cup final.

In other words, the Algerians really put their hearts into it. For England it was just another game.

Desire. It is proving a decisive factor at the World Cup and will be even more so in the knockout matches that begin Saturday.

France and Italy blatantly lacked it in the group stages, were gobbled up by teams hungrier than them and were sent home in humiliation.

The United States, Slovakia, Japan and others have it by the bucketload, and so fully deserve their spots in the round of 16, the point from which the World Cup really gets serious.

Of the 13 European sides that started this World Cup, only six advanced to the last 16, fewer than at the last three World Cups stretching back to 1998, when the tournament expanded to 32 teams.

But the reason why European footballing powers like Germany, Spain, England, France and Italy struggled at times here or, worse, made fools of themselves is not because their players are exhausted from long seasons with their clubs. If that were the cause, then Brazil and Argentina, both made up mainly of Europe-based players, would have looked jaded, too. They haven't.

Altitude isn't really an explanation, either. Nor is heat, because it's been a cold South African June.

Italian football federation president Giancarlo Abete trotted out another old scapegoat - foreign players - as the painful post-mortem of Italy's failure got underway. That's an argument England has used to explain past disappointments, too. The premise: In hiring foreign players, European clubs are neglecting young homegrown talent, hurting their national sides.

"These problems don't involve just Italian football, it's a Europe-wide problem," Abete said. "We don't have enough players with international experience."

Where that argument falls down and is clearly untrue, however, is that it assumes that Italy has fewer decent players to choose from than, say, Japan, South Korea, Paraguay or Portugal, which all reached the last 16. Also, imports of top players make European leagues stronger, forcing European players to raise their game, too.