Upsets keep on coming

Italy's Fabio Quagliarella reacts after a missed shot at goal against Slovakia. (REUTERS/Stefano...

Italy's Fabio Quagliarella reacts after a missed shot at goal against Slovakia. (REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)

GARETH WHEELER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:38 PM ET

Who would have thunk it? The defending champs bowing out prematurely and an underrated Japanese side coming out of nowhere to surprise.

It really has been a World Cup of upsets. Some of the bigger teams, the so-called favourites, were fortunate to go through. Italy was among those less fortunate.

Italy was arguably dealt the kindest draw of all tournament favourites. And despite not fielding its strongest team in memory on paper, it was thought Italy certainly had enough to get past the unproven and lesser soccer nations in Group F.

The press will have a field day ruing a lack of effort and poor squad selection for the Italians, now the fourth team to win the World Cup and fail to advance the following tournament.

With goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfielder Andrea Pirlo injured or dealing, Italy became vulnerable. Not to mention the lack of a special goal scorer that has been trademark of Italian sides as long as I can remember.

So let's not simply call it an Italian disaster. Other teams were full marks for the upset.

In Group E, not a pundit I spoke to, either in South Africa or Canada, gave Japan any chance of qualifying, let alone winning a game.

Yet in a tournament where proper free kicks have been few and far between, two goals from set pieces in the first half displayed Japanese precision. And their creative offensive approach was not only refreshing, but also effective.

While the upsets keep coming, African teams never joined the party.

It was a major conversation heading in: Which African nation would rise to the challenge and contend on home continent soil?

It never was to be.

After Ivory Coast wraps things up Friday (unless it defeats North Korea by a Portugal-esque type margin and hope Brazil does the same to Portugal), there will only be one African team left standing -- Ghana.

And to be fair, Ghana was lucky to advance. A Serbia red card and fortunate penalty gave Ghana a gift three points in its opener. Likewise, a 50-50 red card to Aussie Harry Kewell and subsequent penalty gave Ghana the equalizer in that game. The Black Stars hardly convinced the rest of the match, labouring to a draw.

So thanks to Asamoah Gyan going two-for-two from the spot, Africa has a nation to support. United States stands in the way in the Round of 16, a difficult task based on form.

That's because Ghana has nothing up front. It can't score. There is next to no offensive creativity and that will be its downfall.

It's a strange thing, an African team with a lack of nose for goal. When you think of strong African teams of years past, goals were never an issue. Keeping them out was.

Nigeria was oh so close to joining Ghana in the next round. The Super Eagles could score, but never when it mattered. Missed sitters by Yakubu and Victor Obinna proved costly against South Korea. Just one simple conversion would have done the trick.

Cameroon wasn't mentally tough and grossly under-prepared. Whether it was outside distractions or poor coaching, survival was never in the cards.

The hosts, with all their charm, were always in over their heads in a group of solid, superior teams. And Algeria, although a nuisance, showed no indication they could score a goal.

It can be argued Ivory Coast was dealt the harshest blow from the get-go, up against Brazil and Portugal. But play acting and poor sportsmanship against Brazil hasn't won them any sympathy. Elimination from the proceedings seems fair.

So why have African teams struggled so much where other underdog nations have succeeded? This was supposed to be Africa's time.

Contrary to popular belief, climate was never going to be an advantage. The weather across the country suits South American teams more than the warmer weather African nations.

Nigerian great Jay-Jay Okocha, who's been doing television work here, blames poor character. The sheer stupidity of Nigeria's Sani Kaita's red card against Greece supports that theory. As does Cameroon's Samuel Eto's pre-tournament outburst. As does two Algeria sending's off. As does South Africa's Itumeleng Khune on-field temper tantrums.

They are all distractions. They play a part in failure.

As far as on-field shortcoming, two observations - too many touches on the ball and lack of convincing ball movement -- were a severe liability to all the aforementioned teams. Likewise, a failure to take advantage of their superior pace disrupted quality attacking soccer. Everything was far too tentative. Part perhaps due to lack of passion, but more likely feeling the heavy weight of heightened expectations.

All is not lost for Africa. Long-term growth is inevitable with so much continental interest and growing infrastructure.

The time is coming, just not now.


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