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Wednesday, 23 June 2010

South America Steals World Cup

South Africa 2010 so far has actually been the World Cup of South America. In a tournament of bus, aeroplane and small country parking, they have found attacking football the pathway to serene progress; five apples among a plethora of onions.

While it might be said that qualifying from a group containing this current France side would be easier than Paris Hilton after a shot of Cointreau, Uruguay’s performance against South Africa was ruthlessly efficient and they have now qualified from Group A as winners. Argentina have too, from Group B, with Greece getting exactly what they deserved given they are apparently coached by Nigel Negative these days.

Less was probably expected from Paraguay, especially with the shocking incapacitation of Salvador Cabañas, but a battling draw against Italy, during which they defended manfully (read: dealt out a bit of a shoeing) and another fine and robust performance against Slovakia (read: dealt out a bit of a shoeing) resulted in four points and top spot in group F.

Despite Chile only mustering two 1-0 wins as a reward for their commitment to attacking, Marcelo Bielsa is at least staying true to form. Chile are wonderful to watch. And then Brazil, one bit of basketball from Luis Fabiano aside, have scored exclusively great goals in industriously notching up six points from six.

But why is this domain, in which barn door and banjo routinely come together so gloriously, solely the domain of the South Americans? The Dutch and Spanish have great attacking players and Germany started well but suffered a hiccup. The less said about the rest of Western Europe's representatives, though, the better.

Part of it certainly appears to be belief. On this blog in the past we have mentioned the apparent disparity between England's technical abilities and those of other nations. Look at the South American body language – they know they are technically adept and can keep the ball. It inspires confidence. They are also energetic and fiercely fit. If you get the ball off them you are hounded, whether by the Uruguay and Paraguay front three or by Brazil's two holding midfielders until you give it back. Shoulders rarely sag.

This belief serves them well in the face of obduracy. When North Korea kept Brazil out for 55 minutes in Johannesburg, they didn’t panic. They just kept knocking the ball around. When the goals came it was hard to see what all the fuss had been about at half time. Argentina too, even in a game against Greece they didn’t need to win, stuck to the task, none more so than the incredible Lionel Messi.

Should we even be surprised? With the exception of those players based in Europe, we didn't even really know who was coming. Hands up if you knew who Alexis Sánchez was before the Chile-Honduras match? Hands up if you’d really like your club to sign him? The majority of South American leagues hardly get a mention in our Europe-heavy coverage. Meanwhile, European leagues are exported around the word and at the same time, Europe remains blissfully ignorant of everyone else. This startling lack of insight has been more evident than ever in England press conferences, where media attention has centred on the EBJT soap opera and not on asking Capello, the players, or each other what they know about Slovenia. ‘Typically hard to break down’ would be about the most insightful thing you would get from the England camp.

The freshness around the now-famous five could well be literal. Those that ply their trade in South America have had the benefit of a winter break and, the argument goes, this will leave them more refreshed than their World Cup peers. All well and good, I suppose, until you look at Messi or Maicon or Forlan, all of whom (and Messi in particular against Greece) have had long seasons but continue to put in monumental shifts. Conspicuously few South Americans, funnily enough, play in the Premier League, meaning England’s top tier is either taxing the life out of good players from other nations, or it is crap.

We will, though, have to lose some South American sides at some point and the likelihood is that at least some of the knockout blows will be delivered by others from the same continent. At the moment, no one else looks like being able to stop them. Rob MacDonald

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