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The rise of the Americas: It is for real
It is an often quoted fact that no European country has ever won the World Cup outside Europe. But what we seem to be witnessing at this particular tournament is not just the early demise of once greats from Europe - both finalists from the last World Cup out in the first round, that's a first; not just the thorough bashing of the home continent's representatives bar Ghana; but the historic progression of a strong American contingent into the second round. The USA representing the North Americans, Mexico holding fort for Central America, and the Southern Cone of South America. . . plus Brazil, of course.
That South Americans love their football is hardly news, nor is the fact that the continent produces an inordinate number of world class players. Whereas the supremacy of Argentina and Brazil is well established, their smaller neighbours have a football tradition to be proud of that rarely gets the recognition it deserves on trans-Atlantic shores. Uruguay are the most remarkable omission from the radar, twice World Cup winners and twice reaching fourth position, as well as hosts of the first ever World Cup Finals. Relative to their small population, the country is an important exporter of talent to the world's playing fields.
Chile and Paraguay are considered the absolute outsiders at this game, although both have a strong football tradition - Chile hosted the World Cup in 1962 and reached third place, while Paraguay have qualified this year for the fourth time in a row; considering how very tough the qualifying stages are in South America this in itself is a remarkable achievement for a so-called outsider.
But something is happening on the pitch, game after game, rendering the Americans better luck than both their European and African counterparts. Team for team more European nations remain of course; more are there to start with. The unprecedented success of the CONMEBOL nations keeps them in the game (at the time of going to print, only Chile had to cross the last hurdle) not just unbeaten but without trailing at any point in any match, according to InfostradaLive's nifty statistics.
When these things happen at World Cup tournaments, there is a switch in human minds that begins to seek a reason. Why? Theories range from the socio-political to the cosmic: the coloris effect of the earth's rotation shifts the direction of the ball in the Southern Hemisphere. Northern hemisphere players are not used to this, and the fact that the World Cup has not been held in the Southern Hemisphere since 1978, and that whenever it has South American teams have excelled, might lend some wait to this far-fetched theory. But it doesn't explain Mexico and the US.
Perhaps we cannot group these countries with any common denominator other than that they are geographically located in the Americas. In trying to ascertain why so many good players emerge from the region I once talked to Gabriel Heinze who claimed poverty was a main factor: "It makes it necessary to take professionalism seriously, " he said, referring to his own and many of his national teammates' backgrounds. It may be a cliche that football is widespread in South America because with just one ball many little boys can play in any vacant lot or stretch of beach, jungle or desert, but cliches are often cliches because they're true.
Certainly hardship and suffering are part and parcel of football culture, and huge motivators for the quest for joy and escape offered by the game. The Chilean squad have spread a national flag found among the rubble in a neighborhood badly hit by the earthquake last February at their training headquarters to remind them of who they're playing for. It may not be a coincidence that their first goal of the World Cup, 35 minutes into their first game, was a superb pass from Fernandez to Isla who crossed and found Beausejour in anticipation. Jean Andrê Emanuel Beausejour, a Chilean born of a Haitian father, plays in America of Mexico. When Haiti quaked in January, six days went by before the player could find his father who resides in Port Prince.
But the flip-side of this view is that Chile is in fact incredibly well-organized, with football as an institution transparent, accountable and an example to its neighbours. Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has cited this among the contributing factors to their qualifying. If a solid infrastructure were so much as a necessary condition, however, Uruguay's prowess remains unexplained: The football scene in the country is dire;fights over TV rights and player ownership regularly come close to halting the domestic games, and according to a survey by consulting firm Sport and Business Management, Oscar Tabarez is the lowest paid manager of all those attending the World Cup. The prize money for the players if they reach the final is a mere U$S14, 000 - and they have stated their intent of donating the sum to the improvement of the youth development infrastructure in the country.
Money cannot be the only explanation; Mexico's football is super rich, second only to Brazil's outside Europe and miles richer than Argentina. They have been regular importers of football expertise - both players and managers - from their far Southern relatives for decades. Last World Cup, at this very stage, they were readying themselves for this exact fixture under the guidance of Argentinian 1978 World Cup winning squad member Ricardo Lavolpe. Over half the players from that fixture are still playing for Mexico in South Africa. They have reached the knockout stages in four out of five of the last World Cups, with Cuahtemoc Blanco returning this time having played in France 98 and in Japan/South Korea 2002 but left out in 2006.
US Soccer league has money too, and much Latino and Hispanic influence. But the main argument against the poverty and hardship explanation for their success is actually that if this was so, then why aren't African countries doing well?
A couple of years ago, Carlos Bilardo of Argentina pronounced himself on some truths about world football he has come to grasp: "( Europeans) have tactics and strength, their weakness is technique" he said. "In Africa, wherever you go they're all playing football all the time. They have excellent technique, but they lack tactics. " perhaps he hit the nail on the head when he said of South America: " we still have a fairly good mix of both."
Ask any long-standing Real Madrid fan for example, who are the legendary pichichi they are grateful to, and more often than not Hugo Sanchez and Ivan Zamorano will be included: A Mexican and a Chilean. From end to end of the continent, the footballing traditions of Latin America have always had it in them to make an impact away from home. And this week, we get to watch them all at least one more match.
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