Our politics, economies and societies are “Old World” – even our football is now too. Old ideas, old habits, old mistakes we all know well – and closely cling to nevertheless. Have you seen them on TV these days: Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello and Raymond Domenech? Don’t the Italian, English and French coaches bear a striking resemblance to the beleaguered leaders of their respective nations after a crisis management session in the European Council? The cacophony we’ve grown used to from Brussels summits has suddenly spread, albeit in a farcical manner, to the football pitches of South Africa. The old powers seem to be in a quandary. The European nucleus of founding countries has been sorely tried. The Netherlands are holding out, but the others are in the mire, even the Germans are showing chinks in their armour.

We’ve been aware of old Europe’s troubles off the football field for some time now: our population just isn’t growing, creating, taking risks. Our economies and labour markets are paralysed by anachronistic rules to which we cleave, refusing to face the music for fear that any change might imperil our age-old privileges. European society appears immobile: those lucky enough to grow up in a privileged household can hope to replicate the lives of their parents, the rest just have to pin their hopes on happenstance or a miracle.

National mindsets prevail

Studying, training, striving generally serves to open our eyes to possibilities existing beyond our borders. Today’s politicians, however, seem oblivious to the obvious and fixated on the nuts-and-bolts tactics of daily survival; precious few gaze far enough into the distance to imagine the future of the nation rather than that of their own political careers. So there’s no point in looking to Europe for viable and shared solutions, because every time an emergency occurs, it is the national mindset that prevails.

And all of that is being aped on the football fields of the World Cup, where imagination and creativity, at least in theory, could be given free rein. But the results and, more to the point, the behaviour of the big European teams in the tournament have thus far only mirrored the vices and inertia of the Old Continent.

Revolutions, not conquest

The French, as we know, invented revolution, and never miss an opportunity to contest authority. So now that the national team is playing abysmally, the players are taking it out on the coach. And when Anelka flies off the handle and gets thrown off the team, how do his teammates react? They convene, draft a statement, and picket the training camp to protect their inalienable rights. Next time around, instead of picking a captain, they’ll sign a trade unionist up for the team.

The English, as we know, conquered the world by sheer force of enterprising audacity. Feeling too narrowly confined on their rainy island, they forsook the warmth of house and hearth as soon as they could to embark on perilous voyages that were to turn them into the dominant power on the planet. On their South Africa mission, however, the Three Lions couldn’t even beat Algeria. So what do the players do about it? They grumble about coach Capello, who banished the WAGs, those wives and girlfriends who cultivate the loftiest national virtues, from training camp.

Only the daring will prevail

The Germans, as we know, are Germans. When the machine works as described in the instructions, they lambaste Australia. When something goes wrong, as against Serbia, they go haywire. We Italians, with a dearth of talent this year but plenty of good will, are already squabbling even before getting eliminated. Spain, too, have dithered (though it’s rather uncharacteristic), while only those who’ve been thirsting for victory for too long, like Portugal, remain bold enough to sink their teeth in.

One should always give commonplaces a wide berth, but in South Africa big old Europe undeniably looks like a timorous, inert continent preoccupied with not losing what it has rather than achieving new conquests. Zinédine Zidane told us the big European teams all have the same problem: global values have levelled off and we are not as competitive as we used to be. Though analysing the game, he inadvertently expressed a home truth of general validity: global society has no more patience for those who drag their feet – instead of running, daring, putting themselves on the line.