With the second round of the World Cup soccer tournament concluded the main storylines have been the success of teams from the Americas, the early exit of previous stalwarts England, Italy and Spain, the relatively high number of goals, and—at least in the United States—the sudden realization that soccer actually has a strong and passionate following. The dog that hasn’t barked? The pre-tournament meme about Brazil’s unpreparedness to host such a large event and the crime and street protests which were to have shut down various venues. Clearly, that’s not proven out. With two weeks to go, some commentators are already wondering aloud whether this will be the most successful World Cup of all time.
That may be a bit dramatic, but the signs are encouraging. Problems exist, of course, as they do in every major global event, and big questions about cost and legacy of the tournament will be asked by Brazilians themselves after the tournament concludes. Most observers, however, now seem to be content to enjoy Brazil’s famous hospitality and the joy of the beautiful game at the highest international level.
And what a competition it’s been. Goalies have stolen the show. The U.S.’ Tim Howard, Mexico’s Memo Ochoa, Brazil’s Júlio César, Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, and others have become international celebrities as a result of their acrobatic, gravity-defying saves. Nonetheless, more goals have already been scored to this point in the tournament this year than were scored in the full 2010 tournament, and that has made the games suspenseful and fun to watch.
The Americas have shined. Four of the final eight teams are from the Western Hemisphere (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica); almost half of the total teams from the Americas entered at the beginning of the tournament have made it through to this point. The remaining four teams are from Europe (Belgium, France, Germany, Holland). In head-to-head games, the Americas have an overwhelming advantage versus the rest of the world. Given the draw, perhaps as many as three out of the final four teams will be from the Americas if Costa Rica can find a way to beat an imposing Dutch squad. Incidentally, when was the last time a nation like Costa Rica or Uruguay got so much international exposure? That’s one of the best things about this or any World Cup.
Brazil and Argentina are still in the position to claim their sixth and third championship, respectively, but Brazil will have to get past a determined and creative Colombian team first. And history is on the South Americans’ side: no World Cup championship contested in the Western Hemisphere has ever been won by a team from outside the region; all have been claimed by Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. With Uruguay eliminated after star player Luis Suárez was sidelined for biting an opponent, that leaves Brazil and Argentina. Surely Argentina’s first Pope is also doing his part in support of the team…
Still, honorable mention has to be given to Mexico, a team that qualified for the tournament by the skin of its teeth yet still made it through to the second round only to fall as a result of a questionable referee’s call; Chile, which was literally an inch or less away from defeating Brazil on a last minute shot that caromed off the crossbar; Costa Rica, which remains alive and has gone deeper into the tournament this year than ever before; and Colombia, also still alive, which some observers claim is the best team right now from South America. Of course one also has to acknowledge the great strides of the U.S. national team and its success in surviving the so-called “group of death” before succumbing to a feisty Belgian team.
There’s still a lot of soccer to play and to watch, with a number of storylines yet to be written. On to the third round!