When the knock-out round of the World Cup begins Saturday morning, the Western Hemisphere will have almost half of the final 16 teams in contention, and at least two teams (the winners of Argentina vs. Mexico on Sunday and also Brazil vs. Chile) guaranteed in the final eight. Even more compelling: both 2006 finalists, Italy and France, will be watching the games from the sidelines, the first time that’s ever happened. Other European teams that were early on picked to outperform have struggled; so far Holland appears to be the strongest European team although Slovakia has certainly surprised and Spain has finally recovered from an early setback to Switzerland. Latin America and also the United States have acquitted themselves well so far.
In soccer terms the Western Hemisphere has appeared to equal its former colonials overseers. The United States tied England 1-1; Brazil tied its “second team,” Portugal, 0-0. For good measure, even Mexico defeated its one-time colonial aspirant, France, 2-0. Mexicans should consider adding June 17 to their holiday calendar, to compliment Cinco de Mayo which celebrates the defeat of the French at the Battle of Juarez. Only Spain was able to prevail against its former colonies, defeating hapless Honduras, 2-0, and Chile by 2-1. (Honduras did eke out a tie in its last game.)
The tournament now goes to the knock-out rounds, where anything can happen. In some ways, it’s now a second tournament, the first having been the first round. The later stages are where depth and tournament experience count the most, and one would expect previous champions including Argentina, Brazil, and Germany (which plays 1966 champion England on Sunday) to have an advantage. Uruguay doesn’t really fall into this category, despite its two previous Cups, because the last one was before the modern era in 1950. Nonetheless, Uruguay has shown well this time and could also advance.
As the teams get whittled down after the next round, here’s a prediction: all four teams from MERCOSUR (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) will remain in the tournament. As an economic grouping, MERCOSUR has underperformed. But as nations on the soccer pitch, watch out. MERCOSUR nations are outperforming those from NAFTA, APEC, and even the EU in the tournament this year. Perhaps the next generation of trade agreements should begin to include the free movement of labor, especially for those who play soccer. No doubt that’s one of MERCOSUR’s comparative advantages.