World Cup 2014: It’s turning into the Americas’ cup

Boosted by Costa Rica and Chile, Latin America teams are lighting up this tournament while Europe could soon be down to just four teams, writes Simon Hart in Salvador

Salvador

S i se puede.” This was the chant which filled Recife’s Arena Pernambuco as one of the shocks of this thrillingly open and colourful World Cup unfolded between Costa Rica and Italy on Friday and it seems the perfect slogan for the tournament as a whole. After all, the first World Cup on South American soil in 36 years is shaping up to be not just Brazil’s tournament, but a tournament for the entire Americas. “Yes, we can” indeed.

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There could be a record nine teams from South America and the Concacaf region in the knockout phase, with four having confirmed their places – Chile, Colombia, Argentina and Costa Rica – and the potential for four more to join them. While England and holders Spain are eliminated with a game still to play – after respective knockout blows from Uruguay and Chile – all the way from Argentina via Brazil and up to the United States via Central America they are still dreaming.

Things may change before the group stage concludes. Italy v Uruguay promises to be some battle, Croatia could get the better of Mexico, and one or both of Honduras and Ecuador will fall in a group containing Switzerland and France. However, there is a strong possibility we will see just four European countries advancing, making it their poorest performance at a World Cup since the expansion from a 16-team tournament.

It should not surprise us too much. The four previous World Cups staged in South America produced a “home” win: Uruguay triumphing in 1930 and 1950, Brazil in 1962 and Argentina in 1978. Even as far back as the mid-1920s, Gabriel Hanot, future editor of L’Equipe and father of the European Cup, was offering glowing praise for the South American footballer.

 

Writing after Uruguay’s 1924 Olympic final victory over Switzerland, he said: “They are not only ball jugglers. They created a beautiful football, elegant but at the same time varied, rapid, powerful, effective.” Downhearted England fans may not be surprised to hear the Frenchman’s suggestion that the Uruguayans, compared with England, were “like Arab thoroughbreds next to farm horses”.

South American thoroughbreds – the latest examples are Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez – have long lit up the club game in Europe but the difference today is that it is not just the established powers of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay making a big mark but Chile and Colombia. Chile, 2-0 winners at Wembley last November, were Pele’s dark horses before the tournament but Colombia, absent from the World Cup for 16 years, have shrugged off their inexperience and the loss of star striker Radamel Falcao by posting their first back-to-back wins on this stage and will compete in the knockout rounds for the first time since 1990. Exactly the same goes for Costa Rica, whose victory over Italy eliminated England and who will win Group D if they hold Roy Hodgson’s men on Tuesday.

There is common ground between these teams in their tactical approach, according to Ioan Lupescu, the Uefa technical director who is watching games in Brazil with Fifa’s technical study group. He tells the Independent on Sunday: “They are defending very well with five defenders but at the same time the transition to attack is very fast.”

He suggests they have looked fresher, too, as they go about their business of fierce pressing – particularly Chile and Costa Rica – and quick, incisive counter-attacks. And it is interesting to note that after the Spain era of dominating possession, these are teams whose success is based on the breakaway: Chile had 44 per cent of possession against Spain, Costa Rica 42 per cent against Italy and Colombia 45 per cent in the 2-1 victory over Ivory Coast.

They also benefit from impressive attacking players based in Europe. Colombia have Monaco playmaker James Rodriguez and a right midfielder, Juan Cuadrado, who is interesting Barcelona. Chile have the speed and finishing ability of Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez. Costa Rica have Bryan Ruiz, who has played Premier League football at Fulham, and Joel Campbell, Arsenal-owned but a Champions’ League footballer at Olympiakos last season.

The consequence is a happy marriage between experience of European football – Costa Rica have 11 European-based players – and a familiarity with conditions in Brazil. Ray Houghton, who played at USA 94 with the Republic of Ireland, said the humidity in Brazil makes it tougher for players here than at that American World Cup and a 1pm kick-off in Recife would have favoured Costa Rica ahead of Italy.

In this global age, this is a rare journey into the unknown for European players; while Brazil provides more players to the Champions’ League than any other nation, nobody makes the opposite journey.

Lupescu, a former Romanian World Cup footballer, also credits the volume of support South American teams are receiving. “They feel at home being in Brazil,” he said.  According to Fifa, there have been 62,155 World Cup tickets sold in  Argentina, 56,363 in Colombia and another 40,008 in Chile. It feels like so many more, though. After the long wait since Argentina 78, South Americans are making the most of the chance to follow their teams. The travelling Colombians have turned the stadiums in Belo Horizonte and Brasilia a vivid shade of yellow and for Colombia’s Argentinian coach, Jose Pekerman, this backing cannot be underplayed. “Argentina have brought many supporters and Chile too [with 45,000 in the Maracana against Spain],” he said. “This support is very important.”

So what of the Europeans’ fading chances? On the level playing field of South Africa four years ago, only six European teams survived the knockout phase while seven from the Americas advanced. It could be worse this time, even if Germany, Holland and France look equipped to fly the flag deep into the competition. Germany, from anecdotal evidence, are the team most feared here and if that is the good news for Europhiles, the bad news is Brazil have not even found second gear yet. And yes, they surely can.

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