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WC Diary 6: South Americans Well-Placed to Win the 2014 World Cup

Too Much Football

So the group stage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is over. I have missed just one of the 48 matches across eight qualifying groups – that first round encounter between Colombia and Greece. This means that I have watched 4,230 minutes of World Cup football, the most I have done of any World Cup.

Now ask me if it has been fun.

Do not anyone get me wrong. This has been the most fun World Cup for me since I started watching World Cups. It is just that, put things this way, I have come to the point in the tournament when I am starting to get not just a little bit confused.

Especially in the third round of group matches when I watched four football games a day for three straight days, it was – like – who scored what? Or which game was that? Or who kicked who?

Thank God for the FIFA web site and its comprehensive coverage of each of the matches, complete with a 360° shot of the stadium which you can rotate with your mouse so you feel like you have fifty thousand people staring down at you.

My pick of the Round of 16 is the clash between Brazil and Chile in Belo Horizonte on Saturday. The Chileans play an up-tempo pressing game not dissimilar to the way Mexico plays, with the added bonus of a world class striker in Alexis Sanchez.
While you drool because, like me, chances that are you cannot afford to be there. At least, you and I, we have been watching the World Cup. Spare a thought for Daniel Matsunaga, Brazilian-born, who is stuck inside PBB House unable to watch the games being held in his own country.

Some games I watch continuously; some I do not. Because Balls Channel and ABS-CBN Sports+Action air the replays at different time slots, I sometimes watch one half of a game, go off to the bank or something, then catch the second half maybe in the afternoon or evening. It has all been very convenient.

I have never been a nocturnal creature, so I have preferred to get up for the 6 a.m. matches and catch the replays of the other games rather than stay up till the wee hours of the morning. I love football; but I love my sleep more.

The last World Cup in the same time zone was USA 1994. Then, I had no choice except to stay or get up because I had to go to work in the morning. And of course, going to the high school History classes that I taught, it felt like my head was not attached to the rest of my body at all. So I turned to the most convenient of teaching techniques, “Class, copy this!”

The Russians

Remember that anti-war song ‘Russians’ written and sung by Sting way back? Walâ lang. I just thought about it. The Russians are going home from the World Cup after failing to win a single game. They lost to the Belgians; drew 1-all with Korea Republic; then failed to build on a 1-nil lead over Algeria to eventually draw 1-all and be eliminated.

It makes you wonder how a huge nation with a population of 143.5 million can fail to make it to the Round of 16; while an itty-bitty country like Costa Rica, with just 4.3 million, can sit atop its qualifying group, which incidentally included just three former world champions.

It is just one of the many paradoxes that one can find in football; albeit, at the end of the day, it is down to what eleven men do on the pitch. That is why football, in a way, is something of a great equaliser.

Now the Russians have four years to figure out what went wrong and hopefully find remedies in time for the next World Cup, which they will host as everyone knows. There was nothing really appallingly wrong with the way the Russians played their three group matches in two-thirds of the pitch.

They are an athletic team with reasonably skilful players as one would expect of a European team. But it is in the final third where they do lack guile and subtlety and are unforgivably profligate in front of goal. You can play sweet flowing football all over the field, but goals are what win matches.

The Africans, the Asians

It has long been predicted that an African team will one day win the World Cup; and that it is merely a question of time. It will not happen this year even if two of the continent’s five representatives – Algeria and Nigeria – have qualified for the Round of 16.

The Algerians are something of a France ‘B’ team; and if I remember from one commentator correctly, there are as many as 17 of them actually French-born and trained and many had actually represented Les Bleus in various youth level internationals.

This is hardly surprising as Algeria used to be a French colony. Remember a certain Zinedine Zidane? Algerian descent.

And because Algeria are something of a France ‘B’ team, it is no surprise that they are also a pale shadow of Les Bleus. They are physically strong and defensively sound; but it is going forward that they are often found wanting.

While they might have scored what on paper seems like an impressive four goals against the Koreans, the truth of the matter was that the Koreans were playing like they were under the influence of some really good stuff. Defensively, our Asian neighbours were bad! Really bad!

About Nigeria, they would not even have qualified if Edin Džeko’s goal for Bosnia-Herzegovina had not been incorrectly ruled out in the first half of the two nations’ second round encounter. In fact, there was also a foul on a Bosnian defender prior to the cross from which Peter Odemwingie scored the winning goal.

True, the flying Eagles scored twice to draw with the Argentines in their final group match. If we are all being honest, though, the Argentineans had already qualified for the next stage and were really just playing at walking pace. Even at walking pace, they saw more of the ball.

The three other sub-Saharan teams – Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon – are by the time this article is posted probably already back home totally in vacation mode.

These sub-Saharan teams are a puzzling lot. They are physically robust and have skilful players, many of whom play for some of the world’s more renowned clubs. The problem seems to be an inability for these players to come together as a team; not to mention a seeming lack of confidence and tactical discipline.

Of course, in contrast to the representatives of the Asian Football Confederation, a return of two from five does not look bad at all. All representatives of the AFC have been dumped out of the World Cup, with a very poor return of just three points collected by all four teams.

Korea Republic looked sharp in the 1-all opening game draw with the Russians; but then totally lost the plot against the Algerians. The Japanese were always facing an uphill climb the day they lost 1-4 against Côte d’Ivoire in their opening game. Both teams looked severely handicapped physically against Caucasian and black African teams.

The Iranians and the Socceroos were better equipped to cope with the physicality of the game. However, the former suffered from an almost abject lack of creativity in the attacking third while the latter were in rebuilding mode.

Although the Socceroos lost all three group matches, of the four AFC representatives they played the most attractive football and showed no inferiority complex whatsoever against the Dutch and the Spaniards. They will be a force as soon as the youngsters shed the expectable naiveté on display in Brazil.

Round of 16 Cast

Fifteen days later and the cast for the Round of 16 has been completed. Percentage wise, CONMEBOL (the governing body for South American football) has been the most successful with 5 of its 6 representatives having qualified for the next round and an 83% success rate. Only Ecuador failed to get out of the group stage.

Brazil, Argentina and Colombia all topped their respective groups; while Uruguay and Chile finished second. All previous World Cups held in the Americas were won by South American teams, who are well-positioned to ensure that the pattern continues.

CONCACAF (the football body governing North and Central America and the Caribbean) has also been successful in the group stages. Of the body’s four representatives, only Honduras have been eliminated. The United States, Costa Rica and Mexico have all qualified for a 75% success rate.

UEFA is not having a good World Cup year, with only 6 of its 13 representatives having qualified for the next round and a 46.2% success rate. The Netherlands, Germany, France and Belgium all topped their respective groups; while Switzerland and Greece finished second. The Greeks qualified practically through the back door after the Côte d’Ivoire conceded an added time penalty when the two nations met in the third and final round of group matches.

My pick of the Round of 16 is the clash between Brazil and Chile in Belo Horizonte on Saturday. The Chileans play an up-tempo pressing game not dissimilar to the way Mexico plays, with the added bonus of a world class striker in Alexis Sanchez. The partisan crowd may not necessarily work to Brazil’s advantage because, as I had written in another article, they have not really learned to just enjoy playing at home.

Colombia-Uruguay at the Maracana is intriguing, a clash between two teams well-versed in the art of keeping things tight at the back. The question now is who will assume the burden of taking the game to the other team. The Colombians have been lighting the World Cup up with their exciting youngsters, who are quick and may expose Uruguay’s lack of pace at the back.

The other attractive fixture is the clash between Mexico and the Netherlands in Fortaleza. The Dutch have been so un-Dutch in that they have brought a slow and dull counterattacking style to this World Cup, in stark contrast to the flowing football that Dutch teams had brought to the World Cup in the past. Who is to know, however, if this style will finally bring them success?

The Mexicans are largely a counterattacking team, too; albeit they do so with a bit more speed and panache than the Dutch. My concern for the Mexicans is that, like the Chileans, they do not really have very big players. When push comes to shove, the Dutch will enjoy a decided edge; and the Dutch have not been known to shirk the physical side of the game.

Keep an eye out for the Greeks. I would love for Los Ticos to progress; and there are few things more romantic than for the underdogs to keep winning. But the stakes are much higher now as will the pressure on their shoulders. in contrast, the Greeks were probably expecting to pack their bags until Samaras’ added time penalty against Côte d’Ivoire. A team liberated from pressure is always dangerous.

The Greeks have been dull and unattractive in this World Cup; but then they were, too, back in 2004 on their way to winning the European Championship. I seriously do not think they have it in them to win the World Cup; but then I thought the same thing about Euro 2004.

The full Round of 16 fixture list:

28 June
Brazil v Chile, Belo Horizonte
Colombia v Uruguay, Rio de Janiero

29 June
Netherlands v Mexico, Fortaleza
Costa Rica v Greece, Recife

30 June
France v Nigeria, Brasilia
Germany v Algeria, Porto Alegre

1 July
Argentina v Switzerland, São Paulo
Belgium v United States, Salvador

Acknowledgment: Top photo from the Facebook Page of FIFA World Cup.

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