Whereas many of Europe's big-name nations have struggled, South America's finest have got off to a flyer at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. Uruguay and Argentina finished top of Groups A and B respectively and the continent's three other representatives currently head their sections too, with five-time world champions Brazil having booked their place in the Round of 16 with a game to spare.
It only remains to be seen now if Paraguay and Chile can complete a clean sweep in their final first-phase matches. To date, the five CONMEBOL countries have won ten and drawn two of their total of 12 games – taking 32 of the 36 points up for grabs. All of which means that Group F's Paraguay and Group H outfit Chile need just a point to guarantee qualification in first place in their sections.
Quite a turnaround when you consider that no South American nation made it to the semi-final stage of Germany 2006. "It's great to see the South American sides bouncing back," said Chile schemer Jorge Valdivia in an interview with FIFA.com. Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino, for one, is "not surprised", however. He said: "All five teams were in good form going into the tournament. All five teams have high expectations and the majority have put in good displays in the first phase. That said, it's clear that Argentina and Brazil are a case apart."
Catching the eye
Uruguay won Group A without conceding a goal, neighbouring Argentina did not drop a point in Group B. Martino's Albirroja, for their part, held world champions Italy to a draw in their opener and followed it up with an impressive 2-0 win over Slovakia to go top of Group F. Brazil have beaten Korea DPR and Côte d’Ivoire in Group G, while Chile also have six points to their name having become the first team to score past Switzerland in 559 minutes of FIFA World Cup action.
In the eyes of Uruguayan legend Enzo Francescoli, the gruelling and fiercely competitive nature of South American Zone qualifying is one of the factors behind this fast start. "For South American teams, the qualifying phase is really tough," he told FIFA.com. "The players are used to a different standard of football, with different tactical movements and different marking styles. South American football is another thing altogether," added El Príncipe, on the versatility and astuteness that European-based players need to show when returning to their continent on international duty.
What does he feel is the reason behind La Celeste's early form at South Africa 2010? "I played for the Uruguay national team for 12 or 13 years and gave my all for the shirt. Sometimes everything goes well and sometimes it all goes wrong. At a World Cup, however, once the team gets the chance to disconnect a bit, having been away from their country for a while, they end up growing stronger as a squad." The former River Plate forward also chose to highlight the impact of his player of the tournament so far, Lionel Messi, on La Albiceleste's campaign. "Now he's feeling like he does at Barcelona. Once a player starts feeling better and finds their place within the squad, that's reflected out on the pitch."
Reasons for optimism
And though there is clearly a long way to go, the statistics so far provide encouraging reading for the class of CONMEBOL. Leading the scorers' chart is Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain; South American teams have scored a total of 21 goals and conceded just four; while the quintet have already sunk opponents from Africa, Asia and Europe as well as the CONCACAF Zone. "It's tricky to say exactly what all that means as some teams still haven't qualified yet," concluded Valdivia, when given the final word. "But there's no doubt that up to now South American teams have really stood out from the pack."