World Cup trends: South America impresses; refs make critical gaffes
All four semifinal spots could be filled by teams from South America
Traditional powers France, Italy failed; minnows such as New Zealand impressed
Refs have made major mistakes, leading to renewed demands for replay
With the second stage over and the quarterfinal matchups set, here are the biggest talking points from the World Cup:
This is the first time that all five South American sides advanced to the last 16, and the remaining four -- Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, which beat Japan in a penalty shootout on Tuesday -- could conceivably reach the semifinals, an unprecedented accomplishment for the continent. (Chile, the fifth team, lost to Brazil in the second round.) Considering that the last South American quarterfinalist outside of Brazil and Argentina was Peru in 1978, this is some achievement. Europe's top teams, on the other hand, have failed in South Africa, with only six out of 13 reaching the last 16 (at least nine made it in each of the last five editions), though one poor tournament does not turn a slump into a trend.
Some South American coaches have introduced new systems to the tournament (Marcelo Bielsa, Chile); others have not been afraid to change things to improve their team (Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay); and the disaster expected from Diego Maradona's Argentina has not materialized (though it has yet to face another South American team).
One theory put forward by Guillem Balague in The Times of London is that the Jabulani ball is not suited to the long-ball game favored by some European sides: "The Jabulani is difficult to control, making technical players more likely to dominate; so long-ball football is less effective while short, intricate passing and movement is vital."
With Europe's failure and Africa's five sides, Ghana excepted, also underperforming, there could be calls from the South American Football Confederation asking for more places at the next World Cup, especially with Brazil serving as host in 2014.
Serie A's Udinese has always been a selling club, but this summer it might be busier than most, given that four World Cup stars are on their books. Slovenia's Samir Handanovic, Ghana's Kwadwo Asamoah and Chile's Alexis Sanchez and Mauricio Isla all play for the Italian club, though possibly not for much longer.
A list of other players who have impressed shows that many share something in common: Uruguay's Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan, Japan's Keisuke Honda, Brazil's Luis Fabiano, Ghana's Kevin-Prince Boateng, Portugal's Fabio Coentrao and half of the New Zealand side might also be changing clubs after the tournament. To say they are playing to impress potential suitors would be too simple; the truth is they all play at clubs below their true level, and their performances are just proving that.
Others who have played well simply know their jobs and are secure with their place, like Portugal's Raul Meireles, Brazil's Maicon and the Netherlands' Mark van Bommel. The true breakout stars, though, are Germany's Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller. Ozil was part of Germany's U-21 European Championship-winning side last summer and has been the best playmaker in South Africa; Mueller, 20, started the season in the Bayern Munich reserves and made his first Germany appearance only three months ago. Their sense of adventure, clever movement and pace on the break encapsulate the spirit of this World Cup.
Amid all the recriminations over England's elimination, coach Fabio Capello said one thing at his press conference that struck a chord: "Yes, we need a [Premier League] winter break." Former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson said exactly the same in 2002. Weariness is not the only reason that players like Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard played like shadows of themselves in South Africa, but it is one of them (others include not playing in their ideal positions and tension in the squad).
Premier League stars from other national teams have barely made much impact: Fernando Torres has not scored for Spain for 12 months and teammate Cesc Fabregas has lost his place as the go-to 12th man; Serbia's Nemanja Vidic made a bizarre error that conceded a penalty; and the Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba was always struggling for fitness. Along with Rooney, these are five of the top players in arguably the world's most competitive league. Maybe it's just too competitive. (And while Carlos Tevez, another Premier League star, has been impressive for Argentina, he had three weeks off over the Christmas period.)
Other failures may have been coming for a while, but were still shocking in their impact. France capitulated when coach Raymond Domenech lost the support of his players and the media, before everyone turned against each other; defending champion Italy finished at the bottom of its group and suffered from a coach who ignored club form and kept faith with his 2006 stars, including captain Fabio Cannavaro, who at this rate may struggle at his new club, Dubai-based Al-Ahli.
We may yet end up with a familiar name on the trophy, and even a repeat of the 2002 final between Brazil and Germany, but this has been a tournament in which expectations have certainly not been met. The 2006 finalists, France and Italy, provide the most obvious example. They might not have been expected to do much compared to their illustrious predecessors, but both finished bottom of their group and, in France's case, eliminated in a self-induced storm of controversy. Both teams have to overhaul aging sides, but they also need to earn back the respect of their public. The same is true of England, which failed spectacularly to live up to expectations apart from the first five minutes of its opener against the U.S. Other flops included the African trio of Cameroon, Nigeria and Ivory Coast, each left to wonder if highly paid European coaches on short-term contracts really are the best solution for them.
As noted above, those that have exceeded expectations are mainly from South America. In addition, Group F brought us two surprises: Slovakia, which deserves credit for its exciting win over Italy, and New Zealand, which ended the tournament unbeaten and ahead of Italy but failed to qualify for the knockout phase. There were single performances of note: Algeria's draw with England, North Korea's respectable loss against Brazil and Switzerland's upset victory against Spain. And there has even been a reverse of soccer styles, with Germany playing a speedy, counterattacking game and the Netherlands grinding out results without showing its best form (the Dutch typically peak in the group stage then crash out in the knockout rounds).
The U.S. had two goals ruled out in its group games, while Brazil, after benefiting from a missed handball in the build-up to a Luis Fabiano goal, was furious that Ivory Coast's Kader Keita feigned a facial injury to get Kaka sent off in their group game. Luckily, neither decision harmed those teams' progress into the knockout stages. The same can't be said for two big round-of-16 calls on what was a Black Sunday for FIFA.
First, England's Frank Lampard chipped one against Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, the ball bounced well over the line but was not given by referee Jorge Larrionda and his assistants. That would have tied the game at 2-2 in the first half (the Germans went on to win 4-1). Later, Carlos Tevez opened the scoring, from a clearly offside position, for an Argentina side that was having trouble against Mexico, which would lose 3-1. (It's worth remembering that no World Cup is without wrong calls. In 2002, Byron Moreno awarded a generous penalty to South Korea against Italy, before disallowing an Italy goal and sending off captain Francesco Totti. In 2006, Graham Poll showed Croatia's Josip Simunic three yellow cards in a match and forgot to send him off.)
The debate about video technology, long vetoed by FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, is up and running again. However, the next meeting of the International Football Association Board, which has the power to implement changes, is not until next March. In the meantime, Blatter admitted that "something has to be changed," while UEFA will introduce a fifth official behind the goal line in next season's Champions League competition.