In a competition that seemed to be all about South America, there has been a continental shift. Counter-punching its way into the semi-finals are three European teams, leaving only Uruguay to uphold South America’s legacy and add to their nine World Cup titles.
The 2010 finals have moved considerably from where an all South American quartet seemed possible in the semi-finals. Now, the odds on an all-European final on July 11 have seriously shortened. If Holland and Spain survive the penultimate round, it would be the first time since 1958 that both finalists will be eyeing their first title. For all its growing appeal, the upper echelons of the World Cup have stayed insular since it all started 80 years ago.
Three European teams have been in World Cup semi-finals since 1990 except for 2002 when only Germany and Turkey made it to the penultimate round. What surprised this time was Europe’s ability to uphold tradition even though six teams in the pre-quarter finals was its lowest-ever in the World Cup. Holland, Germany and Spain ensured 100 per cent success in the quarter-finals. Germany are used to this but for Spain this is the first time since 1950, when the competition didn’t have a knockout format, that they have stayed this long in a World Cup. Holland are in the semi-finals after 1998.
Even when everyone was talking about the great South America’s surge here, Diego Maradona said by way of development Europe was streets ahead of his continent. To elucidate his point, the Argentina coach spoke about Europe’s stress on youth development and its focus on infrastructure.
Enzo Francescoli, the former Uruguay star and skipper, too said playing in the tough European leagues has helped South America’s performance in Africa. And even before the World Cup began, Dunga highlighted the importance of instilling European discipline to the Brazilian game.
Except for Robinho, loaned to Santos, every player in Dunga’s squad plays club football in Europe. Ditto the XI Maradona started against Germany in Saturday’s quarter-finals here. That Germany have a squad comprising only home-based players and that barring Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres, all Spain players used so far are employed by La Liga clubs serves to highlight how a strong league helps build a strong national team. It may not always win you a World Cup but it can sure take you close.