One of the curiosities of this FIFA World Cup™ has been the success of the South American teams. The sight of Argentina and Brazil in the latter stages is no novelty but South American football has made history in South Africa with four of the continent's teams advancing to the quarter-finals.
The achievements of Paraguay, first-time quarter-finalists, and Uruguay, through to the last eight of the first time in 40 years, mean we might even see another first by the time the dust has settled on Friday and Saturday's action. South America has never managed more than two representatives in the semi-finals – something which last happened in 1970 when the continent had three quarter-finalists and Brazil and Uruguay reached the last four.
It is ironic that the feats of the CONMEBOL countries – Chile also caught the eye in reaching the last 16 – comes at a time when more South American players than ever are based in Europe and when the global spotlight on the European game shines more brightly than ever, particularly through the prominence of the UEFA Champions League. UEFA Technical Director Andy Roxburgh, who is a member of FIFA's Technical Study Group here in South Africa, noted that "the country with the biggest number of players in the Champions League's latter stages is Brazil". Only three of Brazil's 23-man squad play in their domestic league and Roxburgh said the Seleção's style had gained a more European, "pragmatic element" in recent times.
Speaking of pragmatic, two other CONMEBOL sides, Paraguay and Uruguay, boast the tournament's joint-best defensive record with just one goal conceded in four games, yet it is at the other end of the field that South American football still stands out, producing arguably the world's most exciting forward players. Argentina, like Brazil, have long exported their best attacking talents to Europe and Lionel Messi and Diego Milito – two of 17 Albiceleste players based overseas – were on the score sheet in the 2009 and 2010 Champions League finals respectively.
It is not just those two, though. If Paraguay have only eight players in Europe, Uruguay have 13 and coach Oscar Tabarez believes his squad have benefited significantly from the experience of playing their football on the Old Continent. Tabarez said: "Almost all of them are playing in very important foreign teams and capitalising on those experiences of playing at a high level." The Celeste's foreign legion is headed by Diego Forlan, twice winner of the European Golden Shoe, who has hit 120 goals in 207 Spanish league appearances with Villarreal and Atletico Madrid. There is also Luis Suarez, whose goals downed Mexico and Korea Republic, who has recorded 57 league goals in two seasons at Ajax in the Dutch Eredivisise.
Uruguay have always produced teams that are hard to beat and the addition of this attacking threat is one factor behind their success. Another is national pride. Argentina and Uruguay, in particular, have long been renowned in South America for their passionate flying of the flag. FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter alluded to this on Tuesday when he said: "South American teams are successful at the moment, maybe because the players have a higher national identification."
Uruguay midfielder Diego Perez lent weight to the FIFA President's argument when he spoke of the desire of his team to make a mark for their small country on the global stage. He said: "When you're born in a country that has history and a lot of supporters, even though we're just three million people, you're born with a certain pressure because you know it's a football country with a real passion for the game."
No players have looked as motivated in South Africa as Argentina's and it was instructive to see former Albiceleste FIFA World Cup winner Osvaldo Ardiles contrast the success of his country with the early demise of England, the country where he played and coached for many years. Only three European teams have reached the last eight and if the early exits of France and Italy might be considered part of football's cycle of success and failure, England's disappointingly flat campaign raised questions about the poor health of the national team in comparison with the success story of the Premier League and its leading clubs.
Ardiles, writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, said the global prominence of the Premier League does not translate to a winning England team because the club game takes priority. "The Premier League is partly to blame," he said, adding: "It is win-at-all-costs and it perhaps sacrifices the aesthetics and skills." Moreover, he argued that there is a reliance "on the playmakers being foreigners. The teams doing well in this World Cup have players who can dominate the midfield, put ten passes together and from there look for openings." In other words, precisely the kind of football the South Americans play with Spain alone (81 per cent) boasting a better pass completion rate than Brazil (80 per cent) and Argentina (77 per cent).
There is one more factor behind South America's success according to Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino, who said that the teams all arrived "very well-prepared". He added: "Besides having good individuals, they came here in a good moment collectively". Uruguay defender Mauricio Victorino elaborated on this point by arguing that the tough South American qualifying system – a straight home-and-away league system involving the continent's ten teams – had provided the perfect preparation.
He said the achievements of their sides "shows how competitive South American football is. Maybe that's why it was so hard [in qualifying], because all of the teams are hard to beat." The Uruguayans had to defeat Costa Rica in a play-off after finishing fifth in the standings and Vittorino added: "Maybe it is true to say the most difficult part is to qualify. Maybe here you have less pressure because you try to enjoy it when you are here, obviously with a responsibility to perform but the play-off pressure is something really unique." Not quite as unique as the South American story potentially unfolding before us.