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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

So far, South America owns the world's game

Posted by on Wed, Jun 16, 2010 at 11:06 PM

Diego Forlan goes forward during Uruguay’s 3-0 victory over South Africa.
  • Andy Mead/ YCJ
  • Diego Forlan goes forward during Uruguay’s 3-0 victory over South Africa.
RICHMOND, VA—Tuesday's matches marked the completion of round one in the World Cup, and the start of round two. The biggest headline is the dispiriting defeat hosts South Africa suffered at the hands of Uruguay, 3-0. That result leaves the Bafana Bafana needing a seemingly impossible sequence events to qualify out of the group: namely, a) a draw in Wednesday's pivotal Mexico-France match; b) a victory against France in their final group game and c) Mexico failing to defeat Uruguay in the other final group A match. There are other possible scenarios by which the hosts could advance, but all would involve overturning a goal difference of -3, which is just not going to happen. You can imagine South Africa getting a lucky victory over France, but not that lucky.

Probably most of the first round matches will have been forgotten by the end of the tournament — indeed, a good number of them probably have been forgotten already. But one clear trend stands out: the performance of South America's five entries. After the first five days, the record is four wins (one each for Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina), two draws (Uruguay v. France, Paraguay v. Italy), and no defeats.

Argentina and Brazil's wins were expected, of course. But Chile was quite dominant in its defeat of Honduras on Tuesday, mustering 22 shots, and easily could have won by more than 1-0. Uruguay would have been favored on a neutral ground against South Africa, no doubt, but to win 3-0 on opposition soil is impressive; Uruguay also did a good job stifling France in their first match. Paraguay also showed an impressive ability to grind out a result against Italy, a match they were just one momentary lapse away from winning outright.

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Things could change, but right now all five South American entries look good bets to advance to the round of 16. The toughest path remaining is for Chile, the big losers from Switzerland's upset of Spain; they will need to either beat the Swiss or pick up two draws, probably, to go through.

Still, on the evidence so far, they have good a chance to do it. Apart from Germany's demolition of Australia, the three most impressive teams thus far in the tournament in terms of generating chances (though not yet finishing them) through good team passing have been Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Obviously it's still early days, but South America's early dominance in this tournament poses a challenge to any assumption that the center of the footballing planet lies somewhere in Europe.

Meanwhile, both Fabio Capello and much of the English press have taken the bait on German legend Franz Beckenbauer's taunting of the English team as playing "kick-and-rush" football. Beckenbauer seems to think that just because he won the World Cup as player and coach and also bagged a few European Cups that he has the right to sound off on England's national team, getting in a few jabs a the English Premier League as well.

Beckenbauer's views are probably sincere, but there is no doubt that there is an element of mind games going on here. The personality of Germany's national team has long been an assured confidence, often leading to a degree of over-achievement. The personality of England's national team has long been one of self-doubt — how are we going to blow it this time? The draw against the U.S. has opened up those sores of self-doubts, and Beckenbauer is trying to open them a little wider.

There is another aspect to Beckenbauer's comments as well: an implicit defense of the German model of structuring its domestic league, based on local ownership of clubs and relatively modest financial outlays on new players, with German players remaining the core of the league. The English model has for the past two decades moved towards absentee rich on super-rich owners shelling out whatever it takes on players from all over the world, with English players a distinct minority in the elite clubs' starting lineups. Bayern Munich (Beckenbauer's club) made a run to the Champions League final this year, but the long-term trends is one of perennial English presence in the semifinals of that competition, and apperances by clubs outside of Italy, Spain and England a bit of a novelty item. Beckenbauer is no doubt frustrated by that trend; one way to express it is to say that England's national team has suffered because of how the game has been organized.

He may have a point.

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