What a World Cup this has been. Drama, controversy, late game heroics, major upsets. On Wednesday evening, we know that Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, South Korea, England, Germany, Ghana and the United States have qualified for the knockout rounds, with Groups E, F, G, and H to be decided Thursday and Friday. Here are some of the things we’ve learned so far.
1. The soccer sun shines on the Western Hemisphere. There is no reason to have a soccer inferiority complex in the New World. Of the three CONCACAF teams that qualified for the 2010 World Cup. Mexico and the United States have qualified. while Honduras will not make it through. Of the five CONMEBOL teams involved, Argentina and Uruguay are already through, and it looks quite likely that Brazil, Paraguay and possibly Chile will join them in the knockout stage. That’s an impressive seven of eight teams in the knockout stage. The Old World of Europe may have the most renowned club teams, but this World Cup is erasing doubts about the quality of soccer in the United States, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay and Uruguay.
2. Diego Maradona can Coach. Argentina didn’t have the toughest group to get out of (with Nigeria, Greece and South Korea) but being the only team ouf of sixteen to have played their three games so far, Senor Maradona’s team is the only one to grab the maximum points, including a plus six in goal differential. Ok, the man is strange, and I can’t think of anyone who would willingly witness him running naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if his beloved Argentina lift the FIFA World Cup trophy on July 11, as he vowed to do. His decisions seem strange sometimes, his personal behavior can be gently described as excessive, but so far he’s proven he knows what he is doing on the sidelines. As is the case with geniuses, trust the art, not the artist.
3. Landon Donovan is a world-class player. Oh, I hear the arguments now, but I’m not taking it back. We’ve all been waiting for the development of the first American world-class player….well, he plays midfield and wears #10 for the US team. LD is only 28 years old, but has 126 international caps and 44 international goals. His goal against Slovenia to start the US back from a 2-0 deficit last Friday was clutch and taken from a tough angle, and his finish in stoppage time against Algeria to give the US its first modern era Group crown was perfect prime-time drama. His personal journey from talented underachiever to team leader has been obvious to anyone paying attention, and his maturing over the last year or so is undeniable. World class players score big goals, and Landon has added two more to his resume in the last week. I’m not saying Donovan is a talent in the class of those rare birds like Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but he has established himself as a force in the soccer world, and deserves a great deal of credit, and admiration. He is no longer Landycakes. And better yet, US teammates Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard are nearing world-class status too.
4. Having a domestic league helps. The K league in South Korea, the J league in Japan, and MLS in the US have been in existence for about fifteen years each, and the A league in Australia is about five years old, a total of about fifty years altogether, not even half as long as organized professional soccer in England or many other countries. But can anyone deny the effect that having respectable domestic leagues has on the international fortunes of these countries’ national teams? South Korea and the US have gone through, Japan has a chance and although Australia looked weak against Germany, they came back to tie Ghana and defeat Serbia, and had a decent World Cup. These leagues have developed talent, and the best players graduate to the top European leagues. No one would claim that these leagues have reached the status of the English Premier League, Serie A, the Bundesliga or La Liga, but they are playing a big role in the popularity and talent expansion of their respective national teams.
5. African disappointment…and success. Certainly the 2010 World Cup has been successful in South Africa, both on the field and off. An African nation has shown that it can host the biggest event in the world, and do it well. Celebrating the rise of a country from the unacceptable traditions of apartheid to hosting a World Cup in such a short time span is remarkable. The African countries in the World Cup this year have not shown as well as expected, as it’s likely that only Ghana will enter into the knockout stages of the tournament. Nevertheless, the African continent has much to be proud of, and a soccer future that looks bright. Remember that four years before the US hosted the 1994 World Cup, the 1990 American World Cup squad was basically a group of college players. Now look at us. South Korea and Japan co-hosted the 2002 World Cup — and this year South Korea is through and Japan has a chance on Thursday. It takes time to develop into a soccer power. Individual African nations have had some success in previous World Cups, but for the nations of Africa as a group, their time is coming.