Europe's top teams are in turmoil, and African fans' favorites are struggling to deliver on their promise. The World Cup has – so far - very much belonged to South America.
South American fans may be the only ones smiling
South American sides have played nine games, won seven and drawn two at the World Cup, and lead every group in which they compete.
The news that South Americans know how to bend a football to their will is far from new of course. From Uruguay winning the first World Cup in 1930, through Brazil's maestros of 1970s, to Diego Maradona in 1986, soccer has long been their game. "The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it," so the saying goes.
Perfecting it became a national obsession, because of one day in 1950. Brazil was hosting its first World Cup, and had built the majestic Maracana Stadium specially. 200,000 people – considered the largest ever football crowd – packed in for the tournament's final game on July 16, where the hosts were expected to steamroller Uruguay and take the crown. It was a foregone conclusion. Shortly before kick-off, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro addressed the Brazilian players: "You, whom I already salute as victors!"
Brazil lost, 2-1. The Brazilian shirt, white with blue collars, was deemed not patriotic enough and a competition launched to find a new one. The iconic yellow, green and blue was chosen as the winner, and it went on to win three of the next five World Cups - in some style.
A tale of two coaches
Forget samba style, Dunga has put results first
For the current Brazil head coach, Dunga, winning the World Cup has become somewhat a personal obligation. Much to the ire of his country’s press, he doesn’t care if it’s done "the Brazilian way." The former national team captain has reinvented the team in his own efficiency-first image. He started at the back, the team’s solidity built around the Inter Milan Champions League-winning trio of Julio Cesar, Lucio and Maicon.
Of course, Maicon is rarely at the back. He rampaged forward to score an audacious opener against North Korea. Of course he meant it, he's Brazilian. The second goal came from Elano, via Robinho, in another flash of the brilliance we know they are capable of. A follow-up 3-1 defeat of Ivory Coast, which included the welcome return to form of striker Luis Fabiano, was more convincing all round. Brazil is already through to the knockout stages, having done "enough" to negotiate Group G in its first two games. That word was not previously part of its football vocabulary.
Like Dunga, Diego Maradona is a World Cup-winning captain, who has taken on the job of coaching his country. Like Dunga, Maradona is a man who trusts his own judgement more than any word of wisdom offered from others. That might be where the similarity ends though.
Maradona is pure entertainment. He took on a touchline ball-boy role in Argentina’s opening game, although his control was a bit off to begin with. His fledgling career as Argentina coach has already seen plenty of ups and downs. Right now he’s heading towards the crest of a wave.
Argentina is all but assured of a place in the last 16 after two comfortable victories in Group B. The six strikers in its squad scored over 170 club goals between them last season. It was ironic then that defender Gabriel Heinze scored the only goal as Nigeria was beaten 1-0. In the second group game though, South Korea was torn apart. The last of Argentina's four goals was a devastating counter-attacking move, ending with Gonzalo Higuain securing his hattrick. With Lionel Messi starting to emulate his own Barcelona form in an Argentina shirt, treble winner Diego Milito was left on the bench. "When you have amazing players like I have, then my job is an easy one," smirked Maradona.
Leading the way
Those who had an eye on the Conmebol qualifying pool will not be surprised by the early success of the "other" sides from South America. Chile and Paraguay both won more games than Brazil on their way to South Africa.
Chile's elusive Alexis Sanchez (left) proved a difficult man for Honduras to get a grip on
The Chileans, playing with a wonderfully mobile fluency, woke the World Cup up after a flat opening weekend. "This is how it’s done." Only wasteful finishing stopped it beating Honduras by many more than one goal to nil. In a unique 3-3-1-3 formation, Alexis Sanchez lined up on the right wing, but then appeared everywhere. You wondered if there were two of him. You just hope that their attacking ambition will not leave them short at the back in latter rounds.
In its opener against world champions Italy, Paraguay showed it can do structured and coherent, and would have won the match but for a goalkeeper error. Against Slovakia in its follow-up game, Gerardo Martino's side was hugely impressive, every player comfortable with the ball at his feet, and patient in waiting for the second goal to come. Carlos Riveros finally got it in the 86th minute, lashing in from the edge of the box. Paraguay is now in pole position to top Group F and so avoid the Netherlands in the last 16. Not that it should be afraid of anyone.
Finally, Uruguay only made the World Cup through a play-off, in what is a fiercely competitive qualification section. It showed France far too much respect in its first game, before turning it on against poor hosts South Africa. Had Luis Suarez remembered how he scored 49 goals in 48 games for Ajax Amsterdam last season, it would have been more than 3-0. Diego Forlan, conducting affairs from slightly deeper, showed why he is a world-class forward. Those around him buzzed with movement.
Ronaldo's Brazil won the first World Cup to be held in Asia
While European teams have seemed static and rigid in the opening 10 days of the tournament, the South Americans have been dynamic and willing to take a risk. We in Europe may have been engrossed in our Champions League and our big-buck top divisions, but we seem to have been sitting still. These guys have moved the game on again.
The South Americans have got used to travelling, and have looked at home in South Africa. With most of their players based there, Brazil and Argentina have made a habit of staging money-making friendlies in Europe in recent years. Alternative World Cups have, until now, always been held on the continent. France has not scored a World Cup goal outside Europe since 1986. Brazil is the only team to have won the World Cup outside its own landmass, in 1958 in Sweden and 2002 in Japan and South Korea.
The good news for the rest is that there's a long way to go in this one yet. The bad news is that the next World Cup is taking place in Brazil in 2014.
Author: Thomas Sheldrick
Editor: Andreas Illmer