For some reason, I only ever seem to watch the World Cup every eight years. I doubt I could have told you before this year's started who had won in 2006 (Italy), while I watched almost all of the 2002 tournament. Of course, that year I was pretty much a captive audience, as I was in a hospital bed for the majority of the tournament. Initially, I was hospitalized for surgery during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but ended up staying there through all but the final World Cup game. Four to five weeks of being in a hospital bed has you searching pretty desperately for distraction, and so that year the World Cup was a welcome diversion.
The years when I lived in Toronto, Ontario, up until 1990, you couldn't help noticing when the World Cup was being played. As one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, there's a fair chance that every country participating in the tournament will be represented by a segment of its population. It was especially difficult to ignore when Italy, Portugal, Brazil or Greece were involved, as they each have both large communities and specific neighbourhoods where their populations are concentrated most heavily. In years when Portugal got eliminated, the locals naturally switched to supporting Portuguese speaking Brazil. The chance of a Portugal-Brazil final this year will make for some interesting times down in "Little Portugal" if it becomes a reality.
This year, I have a feeling that World Cup fever in Toronto has been somewhat restrained up to now, with the downtown core being turned into a police state for the G20/G8 get-together. There's something about running battles between protesters and police, burning cars, barricades, and the constant din of helicopters patrolling the skies that tends to cut down on the festive mood.
The attraction for me this year has been the locale; for the first time ever the tournament is being held in Africa – specifically South Africa. That was enough to have me start tuning in for the group stages, via the live stream offered by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). Usually these early rounds are fairly boring as the teams are all trying to find their feet so to speak, and while there have been some startling results in opening games in the past, by the time the group stage ends, the old order usually reasserts itself with the same old names leading the way into the round of sixteen. While there was still some truly remarkably boring football played, – the BBC commentators the CBC uses were constantly bemoaning a lack of goals in the early games – by the time the dust had settled, while some familiar names remained, it was obvious the old order was changing.
France, who only qualified for the tournament through a disputed goal and reigning champion Italy both failed to advance. England only managed to score two goals in three games and barely qualified, while Spain, favoured to win it all this year, lost their opening game to Switzerland and only scrapped through by the skin of their teeth. While Europe was treading water and trying to stay afloat, South America's representatives had no such problems. Of the six teams, five advanced, with only Honduras falling short. While Brazil is always expected to compete, in their usual Eurocentric fashion, the rest of the contingent were given short shrift by the so-called experts.
Argentina were discounted because not only did they barely qualify, everybody questioned the sanity of their manager, the mercurial Diego Maradona. As for the rest, what type of threat could countries like Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay pose to the traditional powers? Well, of the five advancing, only Chile failed to win their group.
Maradona’s Argentinians are proving to be the most enjoyable team to watch in the tournament due to his decision to have it play an attacking style which saw them win all of their group games and then demolish Mexico with ease in the round of sixteen. Of course it doesn't hurt that their attack is centered around Lionel Messi, easily the most exciting player in the world right now. Uruguay has also moved on to the quarter finals, overcoming a tough South Korean team in the pouring rain to win 2-1 in its round of sixteen match.
Unfortunately for Brazil and Chile, one of them won't be continuing on after Monday, June 28, as they face off against each other. While Brazil hasn't looked like anything special yet, they haven't really been forced to exert themselves either, as they easily handled an Ivory Coast team depleted by injuries, an overmatched North Korean squad, and played Portugal to a 0-0 draw in a meaningless game. One has the feeling they'll be able to elevate their game to whatever level is required of them in order to continue advancing for quite a while. Chile, while game, simply don't have the talent to compete with their northern neighbor, and barring a miracle will find themselves going home after Monday.
As for the game between Paraguay and Japan to be played on Tuesday (June 29th), that one is hard to call. In the two games I've seen involving the Japanese, they not only have been able to attack well, but unlike other teams, they've also been able to deliver on free kicks during this tournament, scoring twice from a set piece during their 3-1 victory over Denmark to wrap up the group stage. Paraguay had two draws and a win to head up what turned out to be one of the weaker groups. And although I never saw them play, I have a feeling they might not be up the challenge posed by Japan and will be the third South American team heading home.
While I know American supporters were disappointed by their team's loss to Ghana after they had won their group with the thrilling last minute victory over Algeria, I think their expectations might have been falsely elevated by their success in the first three games. They only need look at how easily Germany dominated England in its match on Sunday to know how weak its group opposition had been. The U.S. match against Ghana was a return to reality. Faced with a world-class goal keeper in Richard Kingson and strikers able to take advantage of the few opportunities offered them, the Americans' own inability to finish around the goal finally caught up to them.
When it comes to creating false expectations, nobody quite matches up to the English. Why anyone could have considered them a threat to challenge for the World Cup this year was beyond me. They can yell about referee errors until they are blue in the face, but they were still outplayed and outclassed at every turn against Germany. England, like every team, has to live with the fact that the refereeing in international football matches is archaic and flawed. It's how a team responds to those setbacks which shows its mettle.
While some European sides have been a source of embarrassment and disappointment for their fans, there are still five remaining. Germany has a long history of success at the World Cup, and although critics were prepared to write off this year's side because of injuries and inexperience, they have proven to be one of the more exciting sides to watch. Aside from its let down against Serbia, when they obviously went in overconfident after their easy 4-0 victory against Australia, Germany has played with confidence and ability.
Holland, Portugal, and Spain have all at one time or another deservedly earned the title of the best teams to have never won anything. Spain finally broke through to win the European Cup in 2008, but aside from that, despite exceptionally talented sides for years, none have ever won any title of significance. With Spain and Portugal facing off Tuesday (June 29th), one of them will keep that tradition alive. And quite frankly, it's a toss-up, depending on which side is able to field players instead of prima donnas. However, I'll go with Spain based on its gritty win over Chile.
Holland has managed to sneak under everybody's radar this tournament, or at least not attract the publicity that other less deserving sides have managed, and have quietly gone about winning every one of their group matches in a solid, if unspectacular manner. Later on Monday, they'll be going up against one of the surprises of the tournament, Slovakia, who advanced after its 3-2 upset of Italy. While Slovakia might be a sentimental favourite for some, they stand no chance against the Netherlands. Unfortunately for the winner of this game, their next opponent will be the winner of the Brazil-Chile match-up, and even Holland will be hard pressed to rise to that occasion. Ironically, the European team with the best chance of advancing past the quarter finals will be the winner of Spain versus Portugal, as they will take on either Paraguay or Japan, as Germany already has a date with Maradona's Argentina side.
In fact, there's a very real possibility that the semi-final match-ups will see three South American sides and one European side vying for a berth in the finals, with either Spain or Portugal – my bet being Spain – trying to get by Argentina, and Uruguay dueling Brazil for the other spot. No matter how much I'd love to see an African side move all the way through to the finals in this, the first time the World Cup games are held on their home continent, even if Ghana were to overcome Uruguay by some miracle, Brazil would just be too much for them.
With Argentina improving in every game, and Lionel Messi continuing to dominate the mid-field, creating opportunities for his teammates to score nearly every time he brings the ball near an opponent's goal, neither the surprising Germans, nor a desperate Spanish side will do much to slow down its march to the final.
So come July 11, expect to see the blue-and-white of Argentina take the field against the gold-and-blue of Brazil in the final. Hopefully, it will be one of the best football games played this decade. As long as Maradona doesn't decide to send himself on as a substitute, when the dust finally settles we should be seeing the boys from Patagonia raising the Cup at the end of the day.