/ 26 June 2014

Latin America leads the way

Costa Rica celebrate: Into the round of 16.
Costa Rica celebrate: Into the round of 16.

“And one fine day the goddess of the wind kisses the foot of man, that mistreated, scorned foot, and from that kiss the football idol is born,” Uruguayan author Eduardo Gaelano once wrote as an ode to the beautiful game.

This World Cup has been a mad rollercoaster ride so far in Brazil: Neymar’s brace in Brasilia, Robin van Persie’s leaping header and Arjen Robben’s Bergkamp-esque touches in Salvador, Andrea Pirlo’s utter dominance in the boiling heat of Manaus, Lionel Messi’s excellent goals in Porte Alegre, and Thomas Müller’s obliteration of Cristiano Ronaldo in Salvador count as some of the many highlights.

Despite of the many twists and turns, the World Cup’s underlying narrative feels oddly familiar: it’s another battle between the traditional powerhouses, one that pitches South Americans against Europeans. In recent history, the old continent came out on top when providing the last two winners: Italy and Spain.

Europe has won 10 World Cups, one more than the combined triumphs of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, but never has a European team prevailed on the American side of the Atlantic. In 1978, the last World Cup held on South American soil, hosts Argentina won.

In Brazil now, this intercontinental bout has offered some absorbing games.

A confident and composed Colombia dispatched a limited and ineffective Greece with goals from Pablo Armero, Teófilo Gutiérrez and James Rodriguez. Ecuador succumbed to Switzerland’s Haris Seferovic’s 93rd-minute goal and drew with France. Uruguay single-handedly sent England and Italy – two former world champions – packing.

Seminal moment
Chile, though, have been the most impressive and eye-pleasing of the South American representatives. At the Maracaná the irresistible Chileans’ victory against Spain, the defending world champions, was a seminal moment in football.

Chilean coach Jorge Sampaoli opted for his favoured three-man backline with wingbacks Eugenio Mena and Mauricio Isla. They spread the ball beautifully, providing the more expressive Chilean players up field with a platform to attack.

The game marked the end of Spain’s golden era, while “La Roja” shed their tag as an overeager and eccentric team, whose attacking football has often received patronising praise in the past.

But Chile faltered against the Dutch machine, losing 0-2. For Sampaoli, the defeat was a welcome gift to temper the sky-high expectations in Chile ahead of the knockout encounter with Brazil.

In Santiago, the belief is that this group of players can surpass the achievements of Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas at the 1998 World Cup.

Colombia is another team seeking to emulate its golden generation. In 1994, “Los Cafe-teros”, spearheaded by Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincon and Faustino Asprilla, cracked under the pressure and failed to make it out of the group stages. Defender Andrés Escobar, responsible for an infamous own goal against hosts USA, was murdered, presumably by gambling druglords in the aftermath of the World Cup.

Radamel Falcao’s cruciate knee injury dented Colombia’s prospects in Brazil. He scored nine goals in the qualifiers and was key to coach José Pékerman’s 4-2-2-2 formation, but Colombia has responded well in the absence of the AS Monaco striker.

Creative motor James Rodríguez has scored a goal a game in Brazil and striker Jackson Martínez hit the net twice in a 4-1 win against Japan. Colombia racked up nine goals in the group stages.

In the round of 16, Colombia will meet Uruguay. Costa Rica surprised “La Celeste”, but Uruguay stuck to their routine of sitting deep to protect the ageing pair Diego Lugano and Diego Godín, and slipping in Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani on the break against England and Italy.

Suárez has grabbed the headlines for all the right and wrong reasons.The Liverpool striker recovered in time from injury and wept tears of joy after scoring a magnificent brace against England, but deep red marks on Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder confirmed the suspicion that Suarez had leaned into his Italian opponent and bitten him in Uruguay’s deciding group game.

In the past, Suárez has bitten down on Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic and PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal.

Mexico and Costa Rica, two Central American sides, add a distinctive Latin flavour to the South American challenge. Both were impressive in the group stages.

For Mexico, this World Cup is, once again, about their national obsession: reaching the quarterfinals. For the past 20 years, the round of 16 formed an insurmountable barrier. In the past, Mexico seemed to hit a bad repeat button against Bulgaria, Germany, the USA and Argentina.

But coach Miguel Herrera’s team underwent a true metamorphosis, going from a traumatic qualifying campaign with a play-off against New Zealand to a mature and aggressive outfit at the World Cup.

Forward Giovani dos Santos, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and captain Rafael Márquez staged stellar performances in different group games. In the key game against Croatia, Mexico played more of 5-3-2 than a 3-5-2. Mexico’s trademark wingbacks Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layún were restricted from marauding forward with their usual gusto.

But the script seems to follow tradition: high hopes and a good outing in the group stages before a possible, painful exist in the second round.

This time the Netherlands stand between Mexico and the much longed-for fifth game. Destroyer Greivis Vásquez got suspended and will miss the game; Australia showed that the Netherlands have weaknesses too.

Costa Rica are the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football’s second entry to progress. “Los Ticos” confirmed their status as party poopers by dumping vaunted rivals England and Italy out of the World Cup. Bryan Ruiz, who found redemption at PSV Eindhoven, and Joel Campbell, who blossomed on loan from Arsenal at Olympiakos, are a lethal partnership up front, but Costa Rica’s secret to success has been their diligent defending.

This was obvious in the final group game against Italy. Coach Jorge Pinto virtually fielded a 5-4-1 formation, aimed at containing Pirlo, who had embarrassed England with a flawless performance. Costa Rica contained Pirlo and their rearguard cut off his lanes of distribution. After the game, Pinto hailed his defence as tactically “perfect”.

In the round of 16, Pinto’s team looks poised to overcome the canny, but cautious, Greeks. If the Costa Ricans do so with their familiar flair, they, for their part, will have become football idols, as Gaelano wrote.