If we look just at South America, it's even more impressive: all five South American teams qualified for the round of 16, losing one game in the group phases and going a collective 11-4-1 (the lone loss: Chile 1-2 Spain); Chile, the only CONMEBOL team eliminated in the round of 16, lost to a regional foe.
I've been listening to a lot of talking heads here in the United States express surprise at the strength of Latin American--primarily South American--teams in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. I don't think that too many thought that six of the seven Latin American teams would make it out of the group stage (I did make that prediction on my facebook page, see screenshot, below), but there are a lot of people who aren't that surprised.
I don't mean to disparage U.S. soccer commentators: they know about the European leagues, and the MLS, as well as the national teams from Europe, North America, and the big two in South America--Argentina and Brazil (though there they begin to get a little fuzzy as well). For the 2010 World Cup, the typical pundit has--or had, prior to the group phases--an opinion something like this: traditional European teams will dominate, even if they had lackluster qualifying campaigns and warm-up matches; the U.S. is stronger than normal and has a real chance to make waves; Brazil is strong but not 'Brazil'; Argentina is dysfunctional with a maniacal coach; African teams have a chance because the cup is in Africa. (Let's not even get started on the way this cup has been marketed as the 'African cup'. Imagine suggesting that, in 2006, English fans would all back Germany in a show of continental unity. I guess some people still think of Africa as one country, or Africans as one nation).
Leaving aside the analysis of Maradona and Argentina, which many Latin American fútbol commentators shared, it seems as though U.S. soccer writers did one of two things (or both): 1) glanced at the qualification tables and made assumptions based on those. For those of you who don't know, the South American qualifiers looked like this: Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay (through a playoff). So the assumption was that Brazil and Argentina, and maybe one other South American team--Paraguay perhaps--would make it to the knockout round. 2) relied on a typical belief in European superiority.
But a closer look at any of the Latin American teams would have suggested much greater strength south of the Rio Grande. Honduras excepted, these teams were solid. Each South American team--including Chile, which is out of the tournament at the hands of Brazil--has potent, proven goal scorers who play against the best in Europe. Each has keepers who play in Europe. In fact, the majority of each South American team plays overseas. Mexico had a young, dynamic team that showed flashes of brilliance in qualifying. Latin America and Africa have become the developing grounds for the European leagues, which, according to some, is at least partly responsible for the decline of European national teams.
Let's take a closer look at Uruguay. Mark Starr of the GlobalPost expressed shock at it's ongoing run on NPR, saying something like: "I don't think anyone thought that Uruguay would progress this far." Admittedly, Uruguay are a vexing team; they have the ability to play either a positive, confident game or very negative one. In qualifying they showed poise at times and fell apart at others. I won't say that I was sure that they would be in the quarterfinals, but I surely did see them making it past the group phase. Why? Three reasons actually. In Diego Forlán, they have a talismanic player. Forlán is a two-time winner of both the Spanish La Liga's Pichichi and the European Golden Boot awards. Luis Suárez, a 23 year-old phenom, scored the most goals in the Dutch League while playing for Ajax, scoring 35 goals in 34 games last season. And then there is the tenacity of the team. The team rarely quits. It has grifting midfielders--Diego 'el Ruso' Pérez and Alvaro "Palito" Pereira--and gritty defenders like Jorge Fucile and Diego Lugano.
Or let's take Brazil. All over the world--Brazil included--people bemoan the death of the beautiful game at the hands of Dunga. Brazil is perhaps not as beautiful as it used to be, but let's be honest: it can still play an exciting brand of futebol--not Spanish, but exciting. In qualifying, Brazil mixed flashes of open play with rock solid defense. It allowed the fewest goals of any team--signs for some of the brusque style of the 1994 champions--but it also scored the most. And at the World Cup, Brazil has scored 8 goals in 4 games. Rob Hughes, in the New York Times noted that, after Brazil's first goal in its 3-0 rout of Chile in the round of 16, it fell back into a defensive posture. But this was not the defensive posture of, say, Greece or Italy (in 2010), praying for the ability to counterattack. It is the defensive posture of the LA Lakers, waiting to start one of the most potent fast breaks in the world. Outside of Kaká and keeper Julio Cesar, the rest of the core of this Brazilian team may not be household names now, but Maicon, Michel Bastos, Dani Alves, and Elano may yet be. (More on Brazil later).
My second point, that there is a belief in European superiority in football, is goes a little deeper. Sure, 2006 looked like the Eurocup, with an all-UEFA semifinal. But I am surprised at the continued belief in European superiority. As I mentioned above, much of the strength of the European leagues, and many of their best players, are not European. Leagues are thriving, but the development of European players is lagging. But there is more. There's the assumption that soccer is a European game. Even if it is called the global game, it was invented there, it is where the heart of the game beats. Everyone else is a neophyte. This belief contains some truth: modern soccer was born in England. That's it. After the development of the association rules in 1863, soccer spread rapidly throughout the globe, not just within Europe. Within ten years, the game was in Latin America. In other words, it's development was almost contemporaneous with Europe...
And there is just the general Eurocentric bias of the press, which looks paternalistically down on other regions of the world, if it deigns to look at all.
I'll leave it here for now. Of course, soccer being a game, every South American team could lose in the quarterfinals. I wouldn't bet on it.
screenshot of facebook page, published June 10, 2010: