Saturday, June 26, 2010

End of the Group Stage

After fifteen days of great soccer, boring soccer, and low productivity worldwide, we are accustomed to the sound of vuvuzelas and ready for the knockout rounds at the World Cup. Here are a couple big stories looking back and looking forward:
  • The embarassing implosion of the French team, from the players' striking to the government response to the coach's classless refusal to shake the hand of the South Africa coach after the last game, punctuated the 2006 runners-up's exit from the Cup. Defending champions Italy didn't go out so spectacularly, they just failed to win a game and finished behind surprising New Zealand. The announcer at the end of Slovakia's win over Italy said that 5 of 6 of the shots on goal against Italy were successful, the 2006 champs obviously missed their injured keeper Buffon. Only 6 (of the 13) European teams advanced to the second round, an all-time low: three time winners Germany, one time winner England, co-favorites Spain, perennial dark horses the Netherlands and Portugal, and Slovakia, which as the only new team at the World Cup has jumped all the way to 16th in FIFA's all time records table (they share Czechoslovakia's records with the Czech Republic). And all 6 European teams are matched up with other Europeans, so there will definitely be 3 European reps in the final 8.
  • 8 teams from the Americas entered the Cup, out of 32 teams in South Africa. Only one, Honduras, is going home, so the Western Hemisphere has gone from a quarter of the teams to nearly half. Five South American teams in the Round of 16 is an all-time high, four of them won their groups, as did the United States, while Mexico and Chile made it through as group runners-up. Out of the South American five, only Chile lost a game (to Spain). Asia did surprisingly well, with both South Korea and Japan advancing without much difficulty. Africa's performance has been disappointing given the raised expectations of a Cup in Africa. Algeria didn't score a goal, Cameroon, which had the easiest path out of their group, failed to get a result. Hosts South Africa failed to get out of their group due to a bad loss to Uruguay, the first time the hosts failed to get out of the group stage, but they performed respectably for the second-lowest-ranked team in the tournament. Nigeria was good enough to advance but failed to. The exciting Ivory Coast team fought valiantly in the Group of Death for the second Cup in a row. So the hopes of all of Africa are now on Ghana, the United States' opponent this afternoon.
  • There are some great match-ups coming up in the next few days: Germany-England, Spain-Portugal, Brazil-Chile especially, but USA-Ghana is a rematch of the pivotal group game in 2006, in which Ghana eliminated the US and advanced. We're in the most wide-open quadrant of the bracket now. While the winner of Germany-England will face Argentina and the Netherlands will face Brazil in tough quarterfinal match-ups, and Spain should sail through to the semis if they can get past Portugal, one team out of Uruguay, South Korea, the United States and Ghana will be the surprise semifinalist at the 2010 World Cup. I'm rooting for the USA to turn in their best Cup performance since 1930 and then face Brazil or the Netherlands. But Ghana going further than any African team ever (Cameroon and Senegal have made the quarterfinals) would also be a great story, as would a strong tournament for Uruguay, winners in 1930 and 1950, the original South American Cup hegemons despite their small size. South Korea has a less compelling storyline for me, as they made the semis 8 years ago at home, but another semifinals for the Koreans, halfway around the world, would gain a lot of respect for Korean and Asian soccer.
  • Diego Maradona. 'Nuff said.

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