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John Brewin profile picture Posted by John Brewin
Jun 22, 2014

Club stars' struggle in the spotlight

Remember Leighton Baines of Everton? Great going forward and could tackle back with the best of them. Brilliant with a dead ball too. Surely he can't be the same player who looked so panicky in Manaus and Sao Paulo, the England full-back whose every touch rattled with anxiety?

The World Cup can sully a reputation. Baines has been one of the best Premier League players in recent years, but many will now only recall him for two tortured performances in a far and foreign land. It will be little comfort for him that he is not alone as a prime Premier League player on whom the World Cup has thrown an uncomfortable glare. The same goes for Spain's La Liga, another division with pretensions of being the highest grade domestic league.

Spain's players sunk as one in their opening pair of matches. Sergio Ramos, the inspiration behind Real Madrid's Champions League triumph, was bullied by Robin van Persie and was appalling against Chile. Diego Costa, whose goals fired Atletico Madrid to the Spanish title, looked far from being the answer to Vicente del Bosque's struggles to find a striker for his system. If anything, he proved a hindrance.

Daniel Sturridge, a true confidence player, began the tournament well, but in the second half against Uruguay, he played as if his boots had been replaced by ice cream scoops. Like the rest of his England teammates, nerves seemed to be the ruin of him. England is something of a special case in that major tournaments always turn leading players into wobbling messes incapable of passing a ball, but the national team's performances are definitely damaging to the Premier League's cachet.

Recent years have seen the club game increasingly lord it over international football. Meaningless friendlies and continental tournaments in mid-season are considered a pox on the monied concerns of the modern super club, and the international calendar is increasingly being whittled down. The Champions League's conceit is that its latter stages are the highest level of football played anywhere on the planet.

It is a justifiable argument. The biggest clubs can afford to buy the best. Yet what club football can never have is the World Cup. If it is not a higher level, then it is a completely different one incomparable anywhere in club football. Why does Lionel Messi look so enraptured to score for Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo seem so desolate when his Portugal teammates are not up to his level? Why did Luis Suarez, like Ronaldo, risk long-term fitness to play at this tournament? The tears he shed in Sao Paulo were of genuine joy and vindication -- as well as physical pain, probably.

Leighton Baines was selected ahead of Ashley Cole but has endured a miserable tournament.

In the Premier League and La Liga, there is always next year. Not so in the World Cup. The concept of "we go again" -- to use Steven Gerrard's now infamous phrase -- is not always applicable. There is no guarantee that players get to return to a World Cup. Four years is a very long time in football.

There is still a long way to go in this tournament and a danger in drawing too many conclusions from the group stage, but while Messi, Suarez and Thomas Muller, mainstays of the European game, have shown their hand, so far some of the stars have been players such as James Rodriguez and Juan Quintero of Colombia, Joel Campbell of Costa Rica and Emmanuel Emenike of Nigeria -- lesser lights from lesser leagues.

Brazil been a place where club form can be all but thrown out the window. How else to explain Manchester United players' performances so far? Van Persie, a long-term absentee from the 2013-14 season, and Marouane Fellaini, a total misfit, have discovered veins of form that looked beyond them at Old Trafford.

This might not last. South Africa 2010 began slowly, with sluggish performances by leading lights put down to the rigours of the European season. Messi and Ronaldo flopped, but by the end, Wesley Sneijder, star of Inter Milan's Treble, and Diego Forlan, Atletico Madrid's match-winner in their Europa League final victory, were two of the leading players. Spain's triumphant team was dominated by Barcelona, the La Liga champions of that year.

Brazil is the place to be right now, the centre of the soccer universe. Such has been the excitement of the tournament so far that it might end up considered one of the greatest of modern times. A failure to turn up here would be a pockmark on players with pretensions of greatness. Club football lurks in the background, ready to consume the rest of the year once the show is over, but in the meantime, reputations are being either enhanced or besmirched.

John Brewin

Based in London, from where he covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. He reported from the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and was formerly a senior editor of ESPNsoccernet.