Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Unexpectedly Europe!

The wins were coming in bunches.  In fact the only loss had come in a game where Chile's objective wasn't so much to win as it was to not get beaten badly and miss the knockout stage.  They didn't.

South American, not European, nations rolled into the final sixteen, the knockout stage, with flare and panache.  Five nations had qualified to play in South Africa, five were still in the tournament.  Brazil and Argentina are known to the most casual of football fans, the others, less so.  Uruguay has history, having hosted the first World Cup in 1930 and winning the title in 1930 and 1950.  Chile was surprisingly good in the 1980s and early '90s and had returned with aggressive and stylish play.  Paraguay was a surprise.

They were all there for the party.  The balance of power was clearly swinging.  Italy, the defending champion, and France, the 2006 runner-up, were bounced during the group stage.  Spain and Germany suffered early defeats.  This was the appetizer to the 2014 main course hosted in Brazil where the locals undoubtedly feel they will be sambaing to yet another title.  South America was going to rule Africa.

All went according to plan in the Round of 16.  Argentina showed their extraordinary talent up front with Huguain, Tevez and World Footballer of the Year Lionel Messi, easily handling Mexico 3-1.  Manager Diego Maradona's style was being vindicated every step of the way and he wasn't shy about letting the media and the world know it.

Two matches pitted the South Americans against Asian nations.  Uruguay overcame a game South Korean side 2-1 with a brilliant strike by Luis Suarez.  Paraguay was able to outlast Japan in penalties.  Only a draw that pitted Brazil against Chile served to dampen a continent's joy.  The favorites played their beautiful game and outclassed the Chileans 3-0.  South America would have a participant in each of the quarterfinal match-ups.

And then it all went off the rails.  Brazil drew The Netherlands.  The Dutch had yet to lose, but they hadn't played as well as their faithful would have liked and it was rumored there was some in-fighting amongst the side.  Brazil got off early on a great strike by Robinho and controlled the tempo through the interval.  But in a fifteen minute stretch in the second half all was lost.  Wesley Sneijder was the perp on both occasions and it left Brazil disorganized and desperate.  When Felipe Melo deservedly got sent of for stamping Arjen Robben it was done.  Brazil was out.  Europe would have at least one representative in the quarterfinals.  The pressure on Brazil four years from now will be more than the world has ever seen.

Next up Uruguay played the whole African continent, in this case represented by Ghana.  In an unbelievably entertaining and dramatic match Uruguay was able to get by on penalties after Ghana had missed a penalty spot kick at the end of overtime.  It was an incredibly difficult loss for the Black Stars, but put Uruguay into the semifinals.  Although Brazil-Argentina, the dream Final, was no longer in the cards, the first all-South American Final since 1950 was still in the offing.

Disaster for the South Americans struck Saturday.  Argentina ran into a German team that was well-coached, well-prepared and finished with clinical precision.  All the fears about Maradona managing the side were realized.  Argentina had no answer when things got difficult.  No tactics to counter Germany's counterattacks or penetrating through balls.  In the end it was embarrassing.  The scoreline provided an honest account.  Germany 4 Argentina 0.

Paraguay was supposed to be the one team that would be fodder.  Against a Spainsh team that was one of the pre-tournament favorites, it was believed their only chance was to defend and hope to get to penalties after 120 minutes.  The Paraguayans chose a different route and gave the world a wonderful showing in the process.  They may not have been the better team on the day, but they played a fantastic game.  They went home defeated 1-0, but walked off the pitch with heads held high.

Now, the world is left with Uruguay vs. The Netherlands and Germany vs. Spain.  Holland has never won, losing to the host nation in both 1974 and 1978.  Spain has never been in the Final.  Germany hasn't won since unification, losing in to Brazil in 2002.  Uruguay has been mostly an afterthought since winning in 1950.

As always the World Cup is still filled with great story lines and magnificent stars, it will still cause much of the world's population to stop everything to watch.  Entire countries will breathlessly wait for the results.  But these stories are different than the ones many expected five days ago.  South America's greatest teams have gone crashing out of the field, while two European nations always seemingly on the cusp are there once again.

2006 saw the first all-European Final since 1982.  That appeared to be a long-shot a week ago.  Now, I'd bet on it.

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