Can you believe the World Cup started only two weeks ago? It’s already been one crazy tournament! Yesterday’s games marked the end of the group stage. (See the World Cup bracket here.) Before we move on, a quick recap on some of the biggest storylines thus far:
Things didn’t go as expected for the European powerhouses… England came into the World Cup facing a lot of pressure, with a talented squad and a favorable group. Then they gave up a tie to their former colony, the US of A, in their first game off of Robert Green’s blundered save. They played a dull, lifeless game against Algeria that ended in a scoreless tie. The Brits woke up in time for their third game and ended up finishing second in Group C and advancing. After Germany dismantled Australia in a 4-0 win, they lost to Serbia 1-0. Spain, the perennial favorite in this tournament, lost their opener 1-0… to Switzerland. Italy, the defending champions from the 2006 World Cup, didn’t win a single game and were eliminated when they finished last in their group.
It could be worse though- they could be France. This World Cup was a certifiable disaster for the French, the 2006 runners-up. They followed up a draw against Uruguay with a 2-0 loss to Mexico. From there, things went downhill. Player Nicolas Anelka was dismissed after clashing with the coach, and the remaining players protested by refusing to practice. The French Sports Minister paid the men a visit before their game against South Africa, reminding them “[they] have tarnished the image of France”. Ouch. After being eliminated with a loss to the host nation, the French team went home and there is now investigation to see what went wrong. Only six European teams remain, and they each face European teams in the round of 16. So maybe it’s a good thing three European teams are guaranteed spots in the quarter. I would argue the best European team right now is Holland- they haven’t shown any vulnerabilities.
South American Dominance
While it seems most of the European teams have had, um, issues, the South American teams were dominant in the group stage. Sure, Brazil and Argentina are some of the most decorated countries in soccer, but they’ll be joined in the round of 16 by Uruguay, Chile, and Paraguay (pictured above). Four of the five South American teams finished atop their groups and their overall record so far is 10-4-1. (The sole loss came for Chile against Spain.) In fact, this is the first time more teams from the Americas (which includes Mexico and the U.S.) advanced (7) than European teams (6).
Giving up early goals was almost America’s undoing. A fluke goal by Clint Dempsey gave the U.S. a good start by drawing against England. In the second game, however, the U.S. were down 2-0 to Slovenia at halftime. Landon Donovan fired up the Americans, scoring within the first five minutes of the second half. Michael Bradley scored the equalizer. Then came Maurice Edu’s brilliant goal in the 86th minute. Euphoria turned to disappointment when the goal was disallowed. And yes, the Americans complained about this phantom goal. The disappointment nearly overshadowed the team’s powerful, passionate comeback. Still, they remained motivated and, after England drew another tie, the U.S. controlled their own destiny. After battling for 90 minutes against Algeria, with close shot after close shot (and another disallowed goal), and facing elimination, Donovan scored the game-winning goal in the 91st minute. Now, with a favorable bracket ahead, it’s plausible for the U.S. to make the semi-finals. It’s a redefinition of the American Dream.
I’m not going to dwell too much on this, but the officiating in the World Cup has met with the occasional controversies. The refs have not had an easy tournament. The U.S. alone has had to deal with phantom fouls and disallowed goals. Some goals have been very borderline offsides. Obvious handballs haven’t been called. Some plenty kicks have been unwarranted (I’m looking at you, Italy). There have been yellow cards galore. Of course, the human element and the authority of officials is part of sports (we haven’t forgotten Jim Joyce) but it’s not good when the refs have to much to say about the end result of a game. Just ask the NBA. Hopefully this will change as the tournament progresses.
Africa’s Only Hope
Unfortunately, South Africa became the first host nation not to advance out of the group stage. There were hopes that the African teams would’ve performed better on their home continent (after all, European teams win in Europe, South American teams succeed in Latin America, etc.) but it was not meant to be. The Ivory Coast didn’t survive in the Group of Death, but they still performed well. Only Ghana advanced into the round of sixteen, where they’ll face the U.S. (Saturday, 2:30 pm EST, ABC). For the loser, this afternoon’s game will be a heartbreaker. An entire continent’s hopes are resting on the Black Stars.
And on that note, let the knockout round begin!