Last updated on July 24th, 2022
Generally speaking, international football has been dominated by countries from Europe and South America from time immemorial. These countries produce the best results on the international stage and have won all editions of the FIFA World Cup since its inception.
No doubt exists about the quality of football produced by countries from these continents.
However, Paris Saint-Germain and France forward Kylian Mbappe sparked a fierce reaction from South American footballers and fans when he insinuated that the top South American sides had it easy in World Cup Qualifiers because their opponents lacked quality. His comments were not well-received in South America, and several players responded.
Shortly after, Copa America champions Argentina walloped Euro 2020 champions Italy in the Finalissima, temporarily giving the South Americans an edge in the argument.
Many football fans are eager to understand if the difference between European and South American football is significant. This is what you will find out in this article. Using various parameters, let’s compare between these 2 footballing styles to determine which is superior.
How does European Football Differ From South American Football?
There are several factors we can use to determine how European football differs from South American football:
Style of football
In South America, football is mostly learned on the streets and in parks.
Children have a great deal of freedom to express themselves creatively, contributing to the flair they display when playing matches.
In addition, teams from South America are always filled with technically excellent players who have no reservations about playing like they are back in their childhood parks.
Coaches are usually also very flexible with their teams and give them a chance to show their creative side.
In sharp contrast to the South American style, European teams usually have a much more organised system. Children begin to train in such a manner from the U-9 level just before they clock nine.
As a result, the system programs the players to play in a certain way, and has birthed the success of the likes of Germany and Spain on the international stage with their well-drilled players.
To the naked eye, South American football is more aesthetically pleasing to watch with all of its tricks and flicks, but European football is far more efficient.
Considering the physicality shown by teams, South American football is certainly much more physical than European football. Since players are not usually exposed to organised play early on, they tend to play on the streets in South America.
Many times, this translates to having to play games where fouls are only called when blood is spilt on the pitch, or the player breaks a leg.
Leeds United winger Raphinha described it in an interview with Players Tribune. As a result, the players usually develop into tough men, which translates to their games as professionals.
South American football features a great deal of physical play that would not be allowed anywhere in Europe. Teams in Europe usually try their best to protect their players from harm from an early age. This means zero-tolerance for excessively physical play from any team.
Due to the nature of their training, goalkeepers in Europe are usually better shot-stoppers than their South American counterparts. These goalkeepers usually begin their journey to professional goalkeeping from a very early age. This translates to better performance on the pitch and is why the likes of Dino Zoff, Gianluigi Buffon, Iker Casillas and Manuel Neuer were superior to their peers from South America.
However, recently, the increased requirement of goalkeepers to contribute to their team’s general play has favoured South American goalkeepers who have long been blessed with technical abilities to match outfield players. This has caused the likes of Alisson, Ederson and Emiliano Martinez to thrive on the international stage.
Due to the kind of physical football players in South America are exposed to, their defenders are usually very good at their art. They thrive in systems that require them to use brute force and systems that require a subtler approach.
Defenders like Thiago Silva, Lucio, Walter Samuel, Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano and many others performed excellently for their national teams over long periods and under different managers.
Furthermore, their technical competence and ball-playing ability makes them overall better defenders than their European counterparts. Traditionally in Europe, defenders are drilled to be experts at defending their teams from conceding goals.
This is the primary function of these defenders, and any other attribute is a plus.
However, as a unit, European defences trump those seen in South America because of how well-drilled European teams usually are. Still, on an individual level, South American defenders are much better thanks to their technical abilities which includes reading the game, and ball-playing abilities.
You can find out why Italian defenders are considered one of the best here.
The majority of games are won in the midfield, and this is where European teams are clearly better than their South American counterparts.
Midfielders in Europe tend to be more hard-working and play more as a unit in two-man or three-man groups. These players often play together from a very young age and develop together. The famous Xavi–Andres Iniesta–Sergio Busquets/Xabi Alonso trio, for example, was essential to Spain’s dominance between 2008 and 2013.
These technically secure players complemented each other and can be unplayable on their day.
Germany also used Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Sami Khedira to form the basis for their dominance after Spain, allowing them to win the World Cup in 2014. South American midfields are usually full of flair players with little positional discipline.
These players bring their different styles to the pitch, and this sometimes leads to a lack of coherence and fluency in their midfield and the lack of a defined system.
However, when it comes to an individual level, midfielders from South America are more joyful to watch than their counterparts in Europe.
South American sides clearly have better attacks due to the various profiles of their players. Many South American attackers have a good mix of flair and technical excellence that sets them apart from their European counterparts.
The likes of Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Gabriel Batistuta, and Radamel Falcao are strikers who excelled with their various teams. South American wingers are also known for their extremely tricky dribbling and directness.
Coupled with the abilities of their strikers, this elevates the level of South American attacking football to a level higher than that of European teams. The system implemented by European teams involves harnessing the collective abilities of players without a great emphasis on individual skills.
In contrast, South American teams are able to rely on individual brilliance to bail them out when team play fails.
Number of teams
In South America, only ten teams play against each other. Even in their continental competition, they often resort to inviting teams from other continents to make up the numbers. Countries like Qatar, the USA, Mexico, and the likes have appeared in Copa America in the past.
The fact that South American teams have such a limited number of opponents they can face makes it difficult to gauge the actual level of their football.
On the other hand, 55 countries identify as being under UEFA. This means that European teams have a larger pool of opponents from which they can choose, and consequently, they may be exposed to a greater number of quality sides.
The 2 main competitions for European countries would be the Euros and the UEFA Nations League.
European teams are better off for the number of teams they can face because it gives the teams a good number of matches, more than teams from South America.
Quantity of quality teams
Due to the sheer number of teams that are available to participate in European football, there is a great deal of quantity of quality teams from Europe.
Using the latest FIFA rankings as a metric, there are 25 European countries in the top 50 of world football and 30 in the top 60.
By contrast, 8 of the 10 countries in South American football are in the top 50 of world football, with two, Brazil and Argentina, in the top three.
Brazil is the highest-ranked national team in world football as of June 2022.
However, nine of the ten teams in South America have made it to the FIFA World Cup at one time or the other, with Venezuela the only one to have never qualified for the tournament.
Meanwhile in Europe, only 33 of the 55 teams have made an appearance at the Mundial. If we compare the ratio of participants to each other, it is easy to infer that Mbappe’s comments were ill-advised, considering the relatively better standing of South American teams.
It could be difficult to pinpoint which continent has better quality teams until countries from these regions go against one another on the pitch.
In recent times, it seems teams in South America (especially Brazil and Argentina) have more of an edge over those from Europe.
World Cup performances
It is one thing to qualify for the FIFA World Cup and another thing entirely to succeed in it. The team with the best record in the competition is Brazil, a South American team.
They have played in all its editions and won the most titles.
Their success, however, is not mirrored by other teams on the continent.
Argentina have won two titles, and Uruguay have won one.
That means South American teams have won eight of 21 finals, while European teams have won the other 13. No South American team has won the competition since Brazil in 2002, and the last South American winner other than Brazil was Argentina in 1986.
In recent history, only three South American teams (Brazil in 2002, Argentina in 2014, and Uruguay in 2010) have reached the semi-finals in the last five editions of the competition compared to 15 European teams (10 different countries) in the same timeframe.
This information proves that European teams are generally much more successful at the World Cup than their South American counterparts. However, this could be as a result of more teams qualifying to the World Cup from Europe than South America.
Europe produces 13 participants while South America produces just 4.5 places.
|European Football||South American Football|
|Style of Play||More efficient and disciplined||Flexible|
|Physicality||Less physical||More physical|
|Goalkeepers||Great shot-stoppers||Great all-round with technical abilities|
|Defence||Great defensive units||Not as good defensive units but great individual defenders|
|Midfield||Better, more cohesive||Spontaneous, lacks structure at times|
|Attack||Team effort||Individual/Team effort|
|Number of teams||More teams||Less teams|
|Quality of teams||Less quality||More quality|
|World Cup performances||Great||Not as great|
European and South American football have undoubtedly produced the best teams and players. It is, however, essential to look at facts before referring to one as better than the other.
The information shows that South American teams play better football and are ranked higher compared to their European counterparts but perform considerably worse in the FIFA World Cup.
European teams thrive in the World Cup and have done so since its inception.
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