Hottest teams are from South America
JOHANNESBURG -- They can't lose.
Pick a team from South America, and you've picked a winner. The first tournament on African soil was ballyhooed as a chance for teams from the home continent to break through and for top European squads to excel in the cool winter climate.
But as the first round winds down, it's been the five CONMEBOL sides that have felt at home here.
Through Monday's matches, South American teams are 8-0-2. Any group that includes a squad from South America is led by -- this is not a typo -- a squad from South America.
In Group A, Uruguay is the co-leader with Mexico. Argentina leads Group B. Paraguay, Brazil and Chile head Groups F, G and H, respectively.
"It's just good teams with good players and good mentalities," said U.S. star Landon Donovan. "Obviously, Brazil and Argentina speak for themselves. I think we've all been impressed by the way Chile and Paraguay have really pushed games and pressed opponents. They're just very good teams all over the field, and there's a real possibility that they'll all advance to the next round."
Donovan forgot to mention Uruguay, the fifth-place CONMEBOL qualifier that humiliated the host team, South Africa, in a 3-0 victory in its second match.
The Latin leaders all win in different ways. Brazil smothers and pounds on teams with its SEC football-sized lineup, then creates more than enough offense with brilliant individual efforts -- such as the uncalled handball goal that striker Luis Fabiano scored in a 3-1 win against Ivory Coast.
"I think Brazil can go all the way," said Ivory Coast manager Sven-Goran Eriksson. "They have these four attacking players, Kaka, Robinho, Luis Fabiano and Elano, and then they have this right back [Maicon] who is coming down the flank like a train all the time. It's very hard to contain him."
Argentina is a precision goal-scoring machine driven by Lionel Messi on the field, and a carnival off it thanks to coach Diego Maradona, who puts the thrill back into the pre-match news conference. On Monday, he denied his team was a favorite and gently slapped his continental rival. "I like my team," Maradona said. "We're good and solid in defense, good in attack. I also like Brazil, even though they aren't playing very well and even if they have to use their arms to score."
Argentina isn't the only member of the South American Fabulosos Five (or is it Sensational Cinco?) with an Argentine flair. Paraguay, managed by Argentina native Gerardo Martino, rarely allows opposing offenses breath. Chile, coached by Martino mentor and countryman Marcelo Bielsa, seldom lets an opposing defense rest. In their 1-0 victory over Switzerland on Monday to take control of Group H, the Chileans finished with 32 touches in the opposing box. The Swiss, playing down a man after Valon Behrami's expulsion in the 31st minute, managed a mere eight.
Meanwhile, Uruguay's Diego Forlan, star of the Europa League champions Atletico Madrid, just might be the hottest striker on the planet right now. That is, if you don't count his Real Madrid rival Gonzalo Higuain, who had a hat trick for Argentina against South Korea. Forlan's two goals against Bafana Bafana broke a country's heart and made Uruguay the official dark horse team to win the tournament.
Brazil is through to the second round, but not every South American side is guaranteed a spot. Chile still has plenty of work to do to get clear of Spain and Switzerland in its group and could lose a spot on goal differential depending on its match with the Spaniards.
And the Uruguayans could run into an obstacle early in the knockout stage. A second-place finish in their group, behind Mexico, would put them into a second-round match with Argentina.
What a matchup. And what a shame.
Because somebody has to lose.