Triumph of the Americas

John Doyle
The Globe and Mail
Published on Monday, June 21, 2010

Sunday, about 80 minutes into the Brazil/Ivory Coast game and just before the theatrical shenanigans, the TV cameras caught Zinedine Zidane in the stands. He was about to leave and was taking Luis Figo with him.

The two old warhorses of France and Portugal, and multiple great European club teams, left in the time-honoured manner of celebrities at big games – 10 minutes before the end, to dodge the traffic. Call me peculiar but I saw it as more than that. It was the symbolic exit of European power from this World Cup

Call me peculiar again, but I’m liking the Americans. Seriously, I am. Seriously, I am. The U.S. team has displayed the sort of grit, backbone and smarts that can take a team far at a World Cup. Twice coming from behind, twice displaying the sort of incandescent passion that bespeaks a united, well-organized ream. And once denied a victory by referee’s bad call. The U.S. is team to admire here.

But it’s not just the U.S that looks good. Right now, this appears to be the World Cup of the America’s. Teams, from North, Central and South America are doing well, look strong and will probably dominate from the Round Of 16 onward.

Brazil, we expected to succeed. Argentina perplexed us – the world’s best player, Messi, under the guidance the world’s wackiest manager, Maradonna. Who knew what story would unfold. Now it unfolds clearly. We’re seeing an Argentina that delivers a brightening dance that delights even the most skeptical of occasional soccer fans. Mexico looks solid too. An understandably hesitant opening game performance against South Africa followed by a determined demolition of France. Paraguay looks stunningly disciplined, adept and unafraid – a well-win draw with Italy and casual defeat of Slovakia in which it seemed never to each top gear.

Uruguay, too, looks capable of a long run. And Uruguay is an example of the calm deliberation that certain teams are bringing to this World Cup. First game, against France, the team looked solid but not quite smooth. DiegoForlan and strike partner Suarez looked uncomfortable at the head of a 4-4-2 formation. For the game against South Africa, Edinson Cavani was at the front with Suarez, while Forlan played in a withdrawn attacking role in a 4-3-3 system. It worked beautifully, Forlan’s prowess as a poacher being nourished and his passing skills helping the team to an emphatic 3-0 victory.

We’ve seen Chile play twice, first in an opening breeze 1-0 past Honduras and rumours of an entrancing, attacking young team proved true. Using what looked like an audacious 3-3-1-3 formation, the team toyed with Honduras and gave evidence that young Alexis Sanchez will emerge as a star of this tournament. Now Chile has also defeated a formidably defensive Switzerland, again by 1-0.

Why the Americas? It might be the timing. Most South American countries (and Mexico) play their club season in two halves. Even allow for continent-wide competitions, the players face fewer competitive games. Players are either more rested or reaching their season-peak of fitness, while European players are tired. That can’t account for everything, though – most of the teams doing well in South Africa feature European-based players. Maybe, the truth is more prosaic – those players on teams from the U.S.A down to Chile arrive at the World Cup with greater commitment to team performance and less neuroses about their reputations and careers.

Meanwhile, the old powers of Europe rise and fall, whimsically, it seems. France has imploded in a mess of infighting. England teeters on the brink of the same fate. Germany looked dazzling against Australia and stuttered against Serbia. Italy’s dependence on iconic old-timers looked foolish not once, but twice – first against Paraguay and then against an organized but merely plucky but New Zealand. It’s impossible to get a clear picture of Holland and Denmark, though rumours of feuding in the Dutch camp (Robin van Persie is not on speaking terms with Wesley Sneijder, or something) are ominous. Spain tried to dance the ball into the net against Switzerland and paid the price. Against an even more skilled opposition it will likely collapse.

The hoped-for emergence of African teams hasn’t materialized, so far. While the world wishes the host country well, South Africa’s shortcomings were too obvious against Uruguay. Nigeria has disappointed. Cameroon, even with Samuel Eto’o – one of the top five players in the world – became the first team eliminated outright from the tournament. Ghana battles on, precariously clinging to hopes of emerging into the next round. Algeria, perhaps the weakest of the African teams, is in the same position, though it outclassed England with aplomb.

The old patterns are now blurred. Traditionally, when World Cups switched between Europe and South or Central American venues, the Europeans did well in Europe and the South Americans triumphed close to home. At the last World Cup in Germany, in 2006, the South Americans faded and the four semi-finalists were European. The anomalous 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan ended in a Europe-versus-South America final, with Brazil defeating Germany. But its most striking developments were the success of the unheralded Korea, Turkey, and Senegal. The old European powers of Italy, France and Portugal disintegrated.

Perhaps this is another anomaly. Or perhaps it is just the time of the Americas. The era of Zidane and Figo is dead and gone. In South Africa, it might be buried. Care to join me and admire and celebrate the teams from the Americas – North, Central and South.

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