Europeans and South Americans have always battled it out to conquer world football. But there seems to be a clear difference that is becoming more and more apparent in the approach to football by these 2 continents, and is giving a clearer advantage to Europe over the South Americans. Europeans approach the game more as a collective sport, whereas South Americans tend to always give extra importance to individuals.
There is a strong contrast between the approach of wins by Europeans and South Americans in the World Cup. While the victories of Brazil in the World Cup are always associated to a major player like Pele, Romario and Ronaldo, and those of Argentina to Kempes and Maradona, European victories are more associated to the team in general. If we take the last four European teams that won the World Cup, in each of these teams, there is no unique star. The technical and popular leadership is shared by several players. When France won the World Cup in 1998, the star was Zidane, but all the experts agreed that other players (especially defensive), such as Lilian Thuram and Marcel Desailly, played as much of a decisive role in the win. The same applies in 2018 when Griezmann and Mbappe shared the leadership of the win, in 2006 when the Italian win was shared by Buffon, Canavarro and Pirlo, and in 2010, when Xavi and Iniesta shared the victory. In 2014, several players, including Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller, were equally considered the key players for Germany. To illustrate the difference in the way the two continents approach team building, the winner of the Ballon d’Or (the most important individual football award in the world) in years where a South American team won the World Cup was Romario in 1994 and Ronaldo in 2002. However, in the last 3 editions where a European team won the competition (2010, 2014, and 2018), the Ballon d’Or was never awarded to a single player on these teams, due to the more diluted impact of the teams’ players on the collective win.
The European federations build a team in a more equilibrated way that gives as much importance to the development of defensive players as the offensive players. This is confirmed by the ranking of the Ballon d’Or in the past 10 years (2010-2019): South Americans have rarely placed a defensive player in the top 10 ranking of this award. In the goalkeeper position, only Alisson Becker (Brazil) managed to be ranked in the top 10, whereas 7 European goalkeepers have achieved a top 10 finish. Even worse, there is no defender, no defensive midfield and no central midfield from South America during that period in the top 10. In the offensive positions (advanced midfields and forwards), there is more equilibrium between Europe and South America with 31 players from Europe ranked in the Ballon d’Or top 10 in that period versus 24 South Americans. Thus of 58 European players ranked in the top 10 in that period, 53% are offensive players and 47% are defensive players. For the South Americans, of 25 players in the top 10, 96% are offensive players and only 4% are defensive players. This difference explains partly why Europeans have much more compact teams and have achieved more than the Latinos in the World Cup editions of the past 2 decades.
Despite the slight domination of European in World Cup wins over the South Americans (12 vs 9), the title of best individual player of all time is disputed between 3 South Americans (Pele, Maradona and Messi). This implies that Europeans wins have been achieved with better defensive players and that the wins come from more collective approaches than in the case of Brazil, Argentina or Uruguay.
This gap in teamwork strength between Europe and South America is also illustrated in that a big part of the best teams in Europe count on a technical leader from South America. Thus, players like Messi with Barcelona, Neymar with PSG and Aguero with Manchester City are considered among the best players (if not the top) in the best European leagues and are leading their teams to national league titles very often. However, once they have to play with their relatively weak Argentinian and Brazilian defenders, they are failing to repeat that glory with their national teams in the World Cup.