ANALYSIS: A party for the world becomes a Latin fiesta in Brazil
By : Fernando Durat
When experts predicted a carnival atmosphere in Brazil for the World Cup, they were certainly thinking of the great opportunity for Latin American supporters to seize the chance to follow the action up-close — a true party of the peple. The “fiesta”, however, has invaded the pitch: the knockout stages of the 2014 Fifa World Cup start this Saturday with a local invasion of regional teams. Out of the 16 berths, Latin teams have taken seven and the qualification of the US also brought some regional seasoning to the table. Of all the teams from the region, only Ecuador and Honduras failed to advance.
Africa managed to squeeze Algeria and Nigeria in, while mighty Europe, owner of 13 World Cup spots, had a rate of success of less than 50% — six teams from the Old World survived.
What is the secret for this success? Without a doubt, the American teams have benefited from climate conditions in Brazil and may also have got an extra push from having supporters in numbers following them — just think of the Argentine “invasion” of the Maracana for their World Cup opener against Bosnia. But it would be simplistic to assume that only those factors could explain why Costa Rica managed to top Group D by beating Uruguay and Italy while also holding England to a draw, for example.
These eight teams have advanced thanks to merits on the pitch. Whoever saw Mexico’s powerful displays against Brazil and Croatia will agree. Yes Uruguay indeed showed more heart than skills to clear the “group of death” but how can you dismiss Colombia’s bossing of Group C, with three victories and nine goals? In Group B, Chile was responsible for the mercy shot that killed world champions Spain in Rio and their 2-0 defeat to Holland in the final game did not tell the whole story of the game in São Paulo: Chile limited the Dutch to only 36% of ball possession.
The USA, while not part of Latin America, showed amazing resilience by surviving their tough group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana. In fact, the Americans actually played quite well and only a special moment from Cristiano Ronaldo prevented them from achieving qualification with a game to spare. Once again we arrive at this point: margins in football are narrower than ever and tradition itself will not guarantee victories anymore. Costa Rica did not fear the mighty Italy, for example, and their dismantling of Uruguay was a reminder of how organization and passion will be a tough combination in this tournament.
Now, however, the Latins will fight themselves. Brazil and Chile open up the round of 16 with what promises to be a game to remember in Belo Horizonte. Under the guidance of Jorge Sampaoli Chile have turned into a team full of belief that will leave their hearts on the pitch. In players like Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas the Chileans have an attacking line that is extremely difficult to stop on an inspired day. Chile will have also noticed that the Brazilians arrive at the knockout stages on the back of less than convincing performances and depending a lot more on Neymar’s talent than they expected before the tournament. If anything, Brazil will remember a very favorable record against their Pacific neighbors, which include a 3-0 victory in the last World Cup at this same stage. Stats themselves won’t be enough, though. Brazil will have to play well to send Chile packing.
Another mouth-watering game could be Colombia and Uruguay. The Colombians have surprised even their own supporters with their display in Brazil after suffering the huge loss of Radamel Falcao and although their group with Greece, Japan and Ivory Coast was not the hardest in this tournament, their dominance was beautiful. They have a precious chance to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in their history against an Uruguayan side in turmoil thanks to Fifa’s exemplary punishment of Luiz Suarez. Discussing the four-month penalty imposed to the controversial Liverpool striker would take weeks here. The fact is that even milder punishment was unlikely to grant Suarez’ presence against Colombia. Uruguay will miss him and Edinson Cavani now has a huge challenge ahead of him. It looks a mountain a bit too steep for La Celeste.
Costa Rica will need all their energy and discipline against Greece, who have refused to die in this tournament and surely know how to frustrate attacking opposition. The Latin American side could benefit from the humidity and heat in Recife but it will be a battle of hearts and minds rather than only legs. To beat Holland, Mexico will need to be a bit more ambitious than they were against Brazil, when a barrage of long-rang shots was all they tried to win a game they amply dominated in the second half. And they also have to worry about Holland’s formidable frontmen. It looks difficult for El Tri.
With Lionel Messi bailing them out, Argentina negotiated safe passage from their Group but results such as the 1-0 victory against valiant Iran showed they are hardly firing on all cylinders. They face Switzerland in São Paulo and it will be curious to see which team will turn up. Against the French, Switzerland looked like schoolboys but their gutsy display against Ecuador in the first game showed Ottmar Hitzfeld’s side can put on a fight. If that will be enough to stop Messi is another story.
As for the US, they must be feeling encouraged by their displays in this tournament and the collective belief Jurgen Klinsmann gave to his players could be a hard obstacle for a Belgium side that did not produce the same beautiful football of the qualifiers. This could mark the biggest upset of the round of 16. The other two games will have Nigeria trying to outmuscle a revived French side and Germany facing an inexperienced but brave Algerian side. Little chance of a major shock, one must say.
(Fernando Duarte is a Brazilian football writer and author of “Shocking Brazil: Six Games That Shook the World Cup” Birlinn Books.)