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Southward ho! Latin teams having a ball

sports Updated: Jun 27, 2010 00:31 IST
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Chile failed to keep a clean slate for the continent but the Latin American quintet made history surviving the first round. The South African winter sure has been good to these Southern Hemisphere teams, four emerging group toppers.

"It's amazing what South American teams did this time," said Jerome Valcke, FIFA general-secretary, at a media conference in Johannesburg on Saturday.

With Uruguay beating South Korea 2-1 on Saturday, an all-South American semifinals quartet will be possible going into the second day of the knockout phase. If that sounds like a fairytale, consider this: Argentina and Brazil are still on course for their first-ever World Cup final. Brazil playing Chile in the round of 16 though means that at least one South American team will go home on Monday.

Having done everything to fuel speculation of an early exit, Diego Maradona took another dig at all doomsday prophets on Saturday, ahead of their game against Mexico. As the road gets narrow, his team is primed for a fight, said the Argentina coach.

However unfair it is to the other teams and coach Dunga, Brazil's passage into the second round is taken for granted. What surprised this time around was that Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile too progressed.

It seemed Paraguay's qualification, after eight years, had added spring to Jose Luis Chilavert's stride as their famous goalie and skipper strutted around the media centre here on Friday.

Paraguay topped group F, which had reigning world champions Italy, vindicating why Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss rates them so highly. Paraguay had exited in the first round in Germany but won one more game (10) than Brazil on way to a third-place finish in the qualifiers this time.

Chile haven't been to the finals since 1998 and looked like not coming to South Africa either, till Marcelo Bielsa took over and galvanised the team into an exciting, attacking unit. One that won two straight games at the finals after 1962. And having scraped through a play-off against Costa Rica, Uruguay began tentatively but went top of group A, which had Mexico, South Africa and France.

Enzo Francescoli, a former Uruguay skipper who, as a 17-year-old, represented his country in the Nehru Cup in Kolkata, put it down to the famous garra charrúa (the Uruguayan spirit about being in the right frame of mind for the big games).

In an interview to FIFA.com, he said: "They're taking risks and if you don't take risks in football then you don't win."

Like Maradona earlier, Francescoli said the tough South American qualifiers have a lot to do with the quintet's success. He also said playing in Europe had made players more flexible in the tactical area.

With six teams in the second round, Europe may have hit an all-time low here but there's no questioning their ability to groom players.

South American teams may have done well here but as a football continent, there's still a lot of catching up to do with Europe, said Maradona. Appropriate that he should have the last word on this.

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