Brazilian league lacks bite
The comparison serves to confirm the impression that these days club football is of a much higher standard than international - as long as we restrict the debate to the major European leagues.
The big clubs in Spain, England, Italy and Germany are in front of the national teams because of the time their players spend together and because they count on the best talent from all over the planet. When the World Cup stops and domestic football returns, the level of play goes up.
In South America, things are different. the Brazilian Championship, almost certainly the strongest in the continent, resumed last Wednesday after a break to accommodate events in South Africa.
But the expression flying around the press box inside the stadium was "reality shock". After the drama of the previous few weeks, this game, played out in front of just 20,073 spectators, was a sorry comedown.
There are extenuating circumstances. Flamengo fans have seen the image of their club dragged through the mud thanks to the involvement of Bruno, their captain and goalkeeper, in a murder investigation. Heavy rain also kept thousands of supporters at home - in addition to making the pitch difficult to play on.
Even allowing for such considerations, the game lacked the sense of occasion that you expect from such an event, while the number of misplaced passes made for a poor spectacle. The most lucid passer of the ball was Dejan Petkovic, a Serbian not far short of his 38th birthday. He helped set up the only goal of the match.
Veteran Dejan Petkovic has established himself as a star in Brazilian football - photo: Getty
The match, which took place just three days after the World Cup came to a close, was not a fair reflection of the domestic Brazilian game. Sunday's match between Santos and Fluminense, for example, was much better.
Santos piled on the pressure, Fluminense held on and scored with a late breakaway. It was enthralling stuff, which also served as a reminder of one of the best reasons to follow South American club football - the chance to have an early look at a future star.
In mid-table after nine rounds of the championship, Santos might be disappointing their admirers but they are a very attractive side to watch. Unlike many Brazilian teams, their attacking play is not dependent on forward bursts from the full-backs. They are more fluid than that, with the central midfielders able to make an attacking contribution.
The headlines, though, go to two young players of extraordinary promise - playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso, 20, and support striker Neymar, 18. This year, the pair have overshadowed Robinho, back on loan from Manchester City, and were tipped by many to make Dunga's World Cup squad.
And this is where the danger lies.
The example of Petkovic illustrates the pitfall. At his advanced age, he is one of the top playmakers in Brazilian football. Even in his prime, he was unable to make such a mark in Europe. It has become relatively easy to build up a reputation in domestic South American football. The pace of the game is slower, there is more time and space available and, especially in Brazil, referees give fouls for the slightest contact.
Ganso and Neymar are being told that they are footballing phenomena. Yet when they make the move to Europe, they are likely to experience their own kind of "reality shock".
That is certainly what happened to Robinho. When he was first making his name with Santos, he kept being told he was a genius. One pundit, the former World Cup striker Casagrande, used to argue that he was going to be better than Diego Maradona. It was just a matter of time before he received the Fifa World Player of the Year award.
But in European club football, the game is faster, the standard is higher and going to ground does not automatically gain a free kick. Making his mark at the top level has proved much harder than Robinho was lead to believe.
And these years later, he still seems unable to reconcile himself to this. For all his talent, his head drops when confronted with difficulty. This is not entirely his fault. The blame should be shared with those who failed to prepare him for the challenge.
There is a danger that the same thing might happen to Ganso and Neymar. Both seemed to think that, based on form in a semi-serious Sao Paulo State Championship, they had earned the right to go to the World Cup.
But just a few months before the showpiece in South Africa, Neymar flopped at the Under-17 World Cup and Ganso fell short of expectations at Under-20 level.
A little humility would have been welcome but it is unlikely to come easily from talented youngsters who are forever being told how great they are. And there are plenty of people with an interest in piling on the praise - the clubs need idols, the media needs stars, agents need hot properties.
One of the big successes of last season was Inter Milan's Argentine striker Diego Milito. In retrospect, it seems clear that he has benefited from being a late developer. When he was 20, no-one was spoiling him by telling him he was the finished article. Deco, the Brazilian who plays for Portugal, is another example.
If a youngster is hyped too soon, there is always the risk he will suffer a reality shock when he steps up his career.
Comments on the piece in the space below. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I'm interested in how you think Mauro Boselli will do in the Premier League for my team Wigan Athletic next season. In the clips I've seen of him on youtube.com, he looks pretty good but many a player has looked good from their goal clips and turned out to be poor.
A) I'll be happy to be proved wrong but I'll be surprised if he's a success. He's an out-and-out goalscorer - he doesn't offer anything outside the penalty area. I suppose you might compare him to Miroslav Klose in a way - not particularly big, strong or skilful but he has that penalty area nose.
With Estudiantes, Boselli was playing in front of the best midfield in South America. So there were lots of chances, he put a few away and his confidence soared. He is now in a much stronger league but not one of the strongest teams. He might struggle - and if he's not scoring, he doesn't do much else.
Q) It has been reported that the Colombian Federation is open to a World Cup bid in 2026 that would also include Ecuador and Peru. I believe, if Fifa really did have the best interest of sharing the experience of the World Cup to everyone, it would make more sense to seriously consider this treble bid. After all, wouldn't it mean more to more South Americans if the World Cup were taking place in three different countries?
I think this is a non-starter - and not just because of Conmebol (the South American Football Confederation) is offering its support for an Argentina/Uruguay centenary World Cup in 2030.
Think of the complication in qualification. As hosts, three South Americans would qualify automatically. The other seven nations would want to go but how many spaces would they get? This proposal has come from Peru but doesn't make sense from a Colombian point of view. Colombia does not need Ecuador and Peru - it can do it alone.