Europe is still football's dominant force
Wasn't it just a few glasses of chardonnay ago that European soccer was melting faster than a wedge of warm Brie? France, Italy and England -- three of the continent's soccer superpowers -- had gone home in various levels of disgrace. To make matters worse, all five of South America's entrants had moved on to the knockout round, with all but Chile winning their respective groups.
It looked as if Europe, which for so long considered itself the home office of the sport, had lost its grip on the world stage after dominating club soccer with its perennial juggernauts such as Barcelona, Inter Milan, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Could it be, as the conventional wisdom had it, that when it came to fielding its own national teams, the Continent couldn't hold a bicycle kick to South American players, whose technique and quality were so superior to those of the Europeans?
Saturday's results sent three of four European teams to the semifinals, which not only puts to bed the myth of South American dominance but also suggests it was only a convenient mirage that allowed commentators to herald a shift in the global game. For at least the 10th tournament running, the semifinals are dominated by European teams. In fact, to look at the final four teams going all the way back to 1970 is to see an established pattern of John Wooden-like supremacy. Only twice in 40 years has Europe had only two teams in the semis; the rest of the time, it was three alpha dogs or more, including all-Euro final fours in 1982 and 2006.
Simply put, the South Americans might have eclipsed the Europeans in flair, swagger and supermodels per capita, but when it comes to the World Cup, it's still Europe uber alles.
Sure, it was tempting to predict doom and gloom for European hegemony when the three marquee teams disappeared faster than the Greek economy. But did anyone, save the hype merchants in the English press, think any of those three really stood a chance to make a deep run in the tournament?
France came into this World Cup a hot, mutinous mess, and the Three Lions and the Azzurri suffered from old age, self-doubt and overbearing management. But whether or not the news has reached them yet, France/Italy/England is no longer the three-headed monster of European soccer. That became patently obvious two years ago when Spain flamenco-ed its way to the European Championship by beating Germany and ushered in a new era of free-flowing, attacking play.
And if you needed further proof of Europe's New World Order, you got it this past weekend when Germany and the Netherlands wiped out the twin towers of South America and Spain did just enough to dispatch a hardworking Paraguay side. Now only Uruguay remains of the South American contingent. (And only because Luis Suarez's Fingertips of God denied Ghana's winning goal).
On Friday, the Dutch outmuscled Brazil, which had cruised through the tournament looking unbeatable with its combination of steel and skill. But the Oranje absorbed everything the Brazilians threw at them and refused to genuflect to their superior talent. The Dutch resilience -- not to mention Arjen Robben's play-acting -- so unnerved the Brazilians in the second half that they surrendered the first own goal in the country's history (even if the officials later generously awarded it to Wesley Sneijder) and ultimately lost their composure, resorting to petulant tackles, frantic gesticulating and referee harassment.
You can argue that Dunga's heretical insistence on physical strength over beauty, normally a philosophy associated with European teams, ultimately undid the Brazilians. But the truth is that his style got them farther than the high-risk, high-glory pyrotechnics of Ronaldinho could have. Such is the nature of the modern game, which rewards solidity more than imagination.
For decades, the team that embodied that ethos was Germany. Efficient, disciplined Germany. But so far in this World Cup, Die Mannschaft have exploded that stereotype by playing the most entertaining soccer of anyone, including Brazil and Argentina, the poster boys for the Beautiful Game. We had seen flashes of Germany's thrilling new style in 2006 when Jurgen Klinsmann instilled an open, attacking mentality into what had always been a methodical team. Still, that team was hardly lovable because it fielded belligerent Michael Ballack, clownish goalkeeper Jens Lehmann and cheating Torsten Frings, the man who denied the U.S. a shot at the 2002 semis when he got away with a handball on the goal line.
With that unsexy threesome removed (Lehmann and Frings retired, and Ballack was injured before the tournament) Germany circa 2010 is difficult to hate -- though, God knows, I've tried. Maybe it's a coincidence that it's the most multiethnic squad in the country's history -- 11 members of the team could have played for other nations -- but it's also the tactical and stylistic genius of manager Joachim Low, who convinced his team to play at once self-assured and unselfish. Plus, the man can completely rock a cardigan on the sideline.
By scoring four goals against England, Germany had shown that there was room in the modern game for flair and creativity as long as it's allied to intelligence and unity. But Argentina was supposed to provide a far sterner test. Diego Maradona and his Hogwarts-worthy ball wizards were the joy of the tournament, attacking with carefree verve in dismantling South Korea, Nigeria, Greece and Mexico -- not exactly a Murderers' Row, granted.
(Indeed, none of the five South American countries that advanced to the knockout round had beaten a higher-ranked team. No. 18 Chile, for all the rhapsodizing about its wonderful attacking mentality, managed to beat up only on No. 24 Switzerland and No. 38 Honduras.)
Leave it to the ebullient young German team to shatter the myth of a South American resurgence, riding a lock-tight European defense and, yes, Brazilian-style attacking flair to a comprehensive victory that had Angela Merkel getting jiggy with it. It's a balance that Dunga thought he had figured out and that Maradona was either too clueless or too arrogant to impose on his team. So for now, thanks to the Germans, the Dutch and the Spanish, the Europeans remain on top of the world.
David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."