A true 'World' Cup in Africa
By GARETH WHEELER, QMI Agency
JOHANNESBURG -- For the first time in a long time, we have a "world" cup.
South Africa was always going to provide a refreshing setting for the tournament. But who would have predicted the continent would provide a setting where all teams would be as equal competitors as possible.
The predicted pushovers aren't going down without a fight. And the so-called tournament favourites are having a tough go.
New Zealand surviving to draw Italy? Are you kidding me?
But it's not just that game. There's parity across the board, and there promises to still be riveting narrative to come with the respective group finals.
No matter what country or continent they're from, every team has a fighting chance and it's refreshing. Chalk this encouraging trend up to the rest of the world catching up to the traditional European powerhouses.
It's been the case for years where Brazil and Argentina are the only two sides outside Europe truly able to consider themselves contenders. Now, the top end is in flux. England, France, Italy and even Germany don't resemble the strong sides of yesteryear. And the lesser likes of Europe have done little to inspire.
This may surprise the North American media and fan base, whose primary soccer viewing comes from Europe. But we shouldn't be. European soccer, especially club football, is easy to follow. It's got glitz, glam, prestige and sexier names.
Elsewhere, the substance is getting much better. Credit soccer's wide-scale appeal, exposure and increased resources and finances to facilitate growth.
No matter how, it's clear the balance of power is shifting away from the European contingent.
In 2006 in Germany, the top four finishers were all from Europe. And six of the eight teams in the quarter finals were European -based teams.
In fact, 10 of the 14 European teams in Germany advanced from the group stage. Even in 2002 in South Korea, nine European teams advanced.
Thus far in this year's tournament, the European nations have hardly shown their usual strength. At the end of Sunday, European teams had picked up only 32 points of a possible 69. Meanwhile, South American teams are undefeated, gaining 23 points out of a possible 27.
Obviously, there are a lot of different factors involved in those results. And a true picture won't be painted until the end. But still, it's undeniable how well South Americans teams have played and how average overall the European teams have been.
The Netherlands, by virtue of their perfect record, look like Europe's best chance for success. But even they won ugly against underrated Japan. Looking ahead, if all goes as predicted, the Netherlands would face Brazil in the quarters. Game over.
And even more damning for the European sides is if Spain winds up finishing second in Group H, it would play Brazil in the Round of 16.
Back to the point, whether it be Italy or Germany or whomever, the European teams just look much less disciplined than usual. Less discipline in their distribution, tackling, organization and finishing. These teams would rely on system in the past to snatch victory, even in games they used to be second best. That kind of savvy is lacking.
As of right now, the top four teams from four years ago (Italy, France, Germany, Portugal) all have some serious work to do just to get out of their groups. All four not qualifying for the next round is a possibility.
Perhaps a dip in European form will lead FIFA to consider eliminating the number of World Cup spots given to Europe. Thirteen teams from Europe of the 32 is a lot.
Now it's the South American teams looking extremely disciplined and organized. Known for the attacking prowess, the defences are fit to match. South American teams have conceded a combined four goals.
Still these teams haven't lost the flair that's made them the most exciting to watch. Paraguay and Chile have looked special. Same goes for Uruguay. These teams are progressive, playing an attacking brand of game. Playing a stout defence doesn't mean falling back into a shell for 90 minutes. It means keeping the opposition going backward.
Each of the South American teams does so in a different, varied way. But a traditional 4-4-2 isn't in the cards. A lot of player movement off the ball, shifting, covering and adapting is prevalent. It takes an intelligent player to play such a system. But it works. It's not safe, but effective.