By NESTOR F. SEBASTIAN
Aside from the vuvuzelas and some questionable refereeing decisions, the headline news to come out of South Africa is the performance of all five South American representatives in the group stage of the World Cup.
Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile have added to the spark that Brazil and Argentina almost always carry and have brought the international spotlight upon South America despite the fact that a CONMEBOL side, other than the two titans, has not reached the World Cup quarterfinals in four decades.
Following mixed results in past tournaments, many have questioned if the "other" CONMEBOL teams could represent the region as strongly as giants Brazil and Argentina, although there have been isolated cases of successful runs by the non-traditional squads over the years.
Back in the 1970s, Peru was as consistent as the top two with some of its own attractive attacking style and technical abilities. In the 1980s, Uruguay's club teams were a force, but that never translated into success for its national side. In the 1990s, Colombia was picked to raise a World Cup trophy but never saw those predictions come to fruition. Paraguay had a respectable run in 1998, and Chile today is one of the more attractive sides in South America with some young talent still yet to fully develop.
After Argentina's and Uruguay's thrashings of South Korea and South Africa, respectively, this past week, Brazil looking strong and Paraguay and Chile turning in impressive first matches, South American teams are a combined 5-0-2, and all five have a realistic chance of advancing to the knockout rounds. South American success might not be limited to to 2010 either – World Cup 2014 will be hosted by Brazil.
Here is a detailed look at how the five CONMEBOL sides have fared in South Africa so far:
The Celestes' young starlet, Nicolas Lodeiro (Ajax), showed his vulnerability by picking up two yellow cards after coming off of the bench in Uruguay's opening draw against France. What could have been disaster for the Uruguayans, especially dealing with a wet field and dealing with nerves in a second game of a World Cup, turned into relief as the Uruguayans held on to share the points.
The match gave them the chance to feel out their chemistry and execute their set-pieces, which were crucial during World Cup qualifying. In their match against South Africa, manager Oscar Tabarez got the best out of his trio of strikers, Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who all provided much-needed and successful pressure on the Bafana Bafana and held the host country's attack down.
Forlan scored twice to add to his stellar year, which already includes the cup-clinching goal in the Europa League, Uruguay's biggest test comes Tuesday against Mexico, a team the Celestes have had a poor record against in the past.
South American opposition already know about the Guarani's defensive stance. The whole world already knew about Italy's. It made sense that both teams' passing games were essentially ineffective in their 1-1 draw.
The rock-solid, defensive-minded players on both sides created havoc and enforced a physical presence on each other. Paraguay manager Gerardo Martino was rewarded after having second thoughts on Dario Veron's position in Paraguay's back line and instead deploying Antolin Alcaraz, who netted the Guarani's goal.
Both the South Americans and defending champions are expected to move on to the next round at the expense of New Zealand and Slovakia.
The Rojos were not necessarily picked to make it out of this group that includes Spain and Switzerland, but those who doubted the Chileans may not have watched the marathon South American qualifiers, where Chile finished second to Brazil.
Incredibly, Chile's 1-0 win over Honduras was its first victory in a World Cup since 1962, when it hosted the event. Chile's free-flowing style overwhelmed Los Catrachos, even though the scoreline didn't reflect that. The dynamic and fast Chilean team was without its injured leading scorer, Humberto Suazo, who plays for Real Zaragoza on loan from Mexico's Monterrey.
The Rojos have enough depth, though, with Udinese's Alexis Sanchez, Sporting of Portugal's Matias Fernandez and Boca Juniors' Gary Medel, who are good enough to spark a deep tournament run. Chile's matchup with Spain will be a true test of that depth, and a win over La Furia Roja could cement the nation's spot atop its group.
Argentina's dangerous array of forwards made sure the world knew of their intentions early on with wins over Nigeria and South Korea, and out of all the favorites in the tournament, Diego Maradona's side has been the most impressive.
Astonishingly, UEFA Champions League hero Diego Milito has only seen 11 minutes of action in two matches, a testament to the abundance of power the Argentines boast. Gonzalo Higuain netted a hat trick against South Korea, as a byproduct of sensational creation from maestro Lionel Messi, and Carlos Tevez has made many threatening runs to keep defenses off balance.
Messi looks and sounds like he's on a mission to fend off the criticism he faces back home when he puts on the blue-and-white shirt, as he has come up with some impeccable runs and has displayed well-timed unselfishness.
With just a game against Greece remaining, Argentina looks like a sure bet to be a major player in the knockout stage.
The North Koreans did well to sit back and defend against the likes of Kaka, Robinho, Luis Fabiano and Elano, but in the end, the five-time champions knew the virtue of patience would be needed with little space in which to play their brand of soccer. With the world watching its every move in its first game of the World Cup, Maicon and Elano scored to lift the favorites to a 2-1 victory and three crucial points.
The Selecao still have a lot of soccer left in the Group of Death, but they have been known to progressively get better in these tournaments, which is always a scary thought. Their next test comes Sunday against the Ivory Coast in what could be one of the more open and splendid games of the first round.
What do you think of the South American sides? Will we see another team besides Argentina and Brazil in the quarterfinals? Do you think the World Cup will be lifted by a South American team?
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