Old European order fast becoming irrelevant on football's biggest stage
South American flair looks destined to conquer the world, writes Paul Wilson
O f the two World Cup games taking place today, it is worth bearing in mind that only a small corner of northern Europe is concentrating on England v Germany, and only the English, with their mad obsession for things that happened either 44 or 71 years ago, have been treating the event as if the rest of the world is paying attention.
The rest of the world is not paying attention. The rest of the world, quite naturally, is waiting for Argentina v Mexico in the evening.
And why not? The same contest in Germany four years ago produced one of the most memorable of World Cup encounters, as well as one of the most spectacular goals. Mexico lost 2-1 after extra-time and did not want a repeat here: they would have much preferred to beat Uruguay last Tuesday and top Group A, thereby avoiding Diego Maradona's potent side.
But they were not strong enough. The story of this World Cup is turning out to be that few teams, even central American ones, are capable of overcoming South American opponents. I had lunch with a couple of Mexican fans and they said they were only in South Africa for a fortnight, just enough to cover the group games, and would raid their piggy banks to extend their stay only if their team could avoid the mighty Argentinians. "We would love to stay on," one said, "but if we play Argentina we know how the story will end. It will be the same as last time. We play better than we ever do, then lose as always."
Argentina and Brazil are the marquee names at any given World Cup, though this year they have a full supporting cast. Uruguay have been excellent, with Diego Forlan in commanding enough form to make Manchester United cry, never mind the Scousers, even if South Africa were rather naive in letting him have the run of the pitch.
Chile and Paraguay are through to the knockout stage too, meaning that all five of the teams the continent sent to the tournament have made it to the last 16, with Chile the only team to lose a game. Compare that to the African experience: six teams (as host continent, Africa was allowed an extra place) were reduced to one by the end of the group stage. Seven of Europe's 13 entrants were packing their bags after the first fortnight. That left South America, Asia and North/Central America as the continental blocs that packed the biggest punch. Particularly South America, where doubts over Maradona's decision-making and leadership, allied to a sticky time in qualifying, persuaded many to hedge their bets on a superlative squad that, man for man, may be even better than Brazil's. There are few such worries now.
Maradona looks born to the role, blessed with the ability to look relaxed and confident in the abilities of his talented squad, capable of blowing kisses to friends and waving to the cameras while counterparts such as Fabio Capello are turning purple with fury.
Not to mention Marcello Lippi and Raymond Domenech, who have been simply impotent, watching impassively as their teams inexplicably disintegrate before their eyes then failing even to come up with a decent excuse for under-performance on a major scale.
"There may have been doubts over Maradona's managerial ability before," the former Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea said. "But the difference between qualifying and now is that he has had a month with the players and clearly they can work together. All South American teams are having an amazing time, not just Argentina and Brazil. Uruguay have improved remarkably, while Paraguay and Chile have confirmed the strength they showed in qualifying."
It is abundantly clear South American football is far stronger than African football and Maradona has a point when he claims South American teams have approached the World Cup in the manner it deserves, whereas some of the leading European teams have been terrible to watch.
Portugal's 7-0 demolition of the hapless North Korea notwithstanding, what have European teams done for the World Cup so far that will be remembered for longer than a couple of weeks? It was Japan who looked the business in qualifying with ease against Denmark, and though the Slovakia-Italy game was a pulsating thriller and easily the most exciting game of the tournament so far, the bottom line was that the World Cup holders, by their coach's own admission, failed to start playing until the 81st minute.
One unpalatable feature of an otherwise enjoyable tournament has been the number of teams -- England, Italy, France -- who have arrived in Africa with big reputations and plenty of Champions League-quality players and simply failed to perform. There may be valid reasons for the blockage that will come to light at a later date, but anyone watching the group games without preconceptions would form the opinion that some of the grandest names in Europe, Spain apart, are responsible for some of the most constipated football.
So in view of the fact this World Cup has featured a large number of empty seats at a large number of stadiums, Fifa ought to start thinking about giving the world more of what it wants to see. South America and Asia have been playing the most attractive football and they have nine places between them, compared to 13 for boring old Europe. And even Europe's success rate is better than Africa's.
Pele's prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000 was out of date by 1998, but such a disappearing act from the continent's own World Cup makes one wonder whether 3000 would be a sufficient timescale.
In the meantime, here's a prediction of my own, based on the evidence available from the first two weeks of this tournament: a South American team will win the World Cup by the end of next month.