The 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ is about to enter its decisive phase with the start of the Round of 16 on Saturday.
Kicking off the knockout rounds are Uruguay and Korea Republic in the first of the day’s two ties. Back in the world elite after a 20-year absence and led by the inspired Diego Forlan, La Celeste were in flawless form in Group A. Collecting two wins and a draw, and scoring four goals and conceding none, they did much to alter their image as a solely combative, battling unit. The South Koreans meanwhile have played some lively, refreshing football and pose a significant threat to the in-form South Americans.
The evening game pits USA, Group C winners ahead of a much-fancied England side, and Ghana, who edged out Serbia in their pool and gave Germany a stiff examination before going down 1-0. This is the Americans’ fourth appearance in the last 16, a further shot in the arm for an increasingly popular sport Stateside, while the Black Stars are carrying the hopes of an entire continent as they seek to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in their history.
The big game
Urged on by the biggest support at South Africa 2010, the Stars and Stripes scrapped and fought their way out of the group phase, coming from behind against both England and Slovenia and snatching a last-gasp winner against the Algerians. Former national team youth coach Bob Bradley has drafted several untried youngsters into a well-oiled side that has fulfilled the promise it showed in reaching the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009.
Their Achilles heel remains the defence, which has stood firm against high balls but looks vulnerable when attacked at pace, a threat they can expect from the Ghanaians. CAF African Cup of Nations finalists back in January, the Black Stars have matched their performance at Germany 2006, drawing strength from a mobile and resourceful defence and a midfield unit that combines class and industry. In contrast to the Americans however, the sole African representatives have been underperforming up front, scoring just two goals so far, both from the penalty spot.
Diego Forlan v Park Ji-Sung
Uruguay’s potentially fascinating tie with the South Koreans features an intriguing sub-plot as the free-scoring Forlan and the hard-running Park put their goalscoring abilities to the test. The Uruguayan hit 17 goals during his less-than-prolific spell with Manchester United, where the South Korean is enjoying more success, scoring the same amount of goals and earning the Old Trafford faithful’s admiration with his work rate. Though their paths did not cross at the Theatre of Dreams, they should both prove key protagonists at Port Elizabeth Stadium.
What they said
“Defending well is not a crime, it’s a virtue,” Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay coach extols the benefits of a solid back-line.
Homegrown hoodoo: No foreign coach has ever led a side to glory at the FIFA World Cup finals, a bad omen for the men masterminding the campaigns of Ghana, Paraguay, Côte d’Ivoire, Switzerland, Chile, Honduras and England, with South Africa, Cameroon and Australia, all of them coached by non-nationals, having already fallen by the wayside.
Twenty-20 vision: Uruguay, the inaugural world champions, were the last country to qualify for South Africa 2010 and have every reason to expect a lengthy run this time around. After all, La Celeste have a habit of performing well every 20 years. Winners in 1930 and 1950, they reached the semi-finals at Mexico 1970 and fought their way to the last 16 at Italy 1990, a landmark they have already matched this time around. Another promising omen for the Uruguayans is the fact that the only team they beat in their 16 FIFA World Cup matches prior to South Africa 2010 was Korea Republic in 1990.
Another family affair: The family atmosphere of South Africa 2010 has been amply reflected on the pitch, with blood ties cropping up in several of the teams on show. As well as USA’s father and son duo Bob and Michael Bradley, Slovakia have their own family ties in the two Vladimir Weisses: the national coach, who is the son of a former Czech international by the same name, and his midfielder son. Lining up in the Ghana ranks is Andre Ayew, the son of national idol Abedi Pele, while Mexico have another dynasty in the family Hernandez: Javier, a goalscorer against France in the group phase is the son of Tricolor forward Javier. The latter was a member of their Mexico 1986 squad and the grandson of Tomas Balcazar, who also knows how it feels to score against the French, finding the target in Mexico’s 3-2 win over Les Bleus at the 1954 FIFA World Cup Switzerland™.