With four of its representatives having battled their way through to the quarter-finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, South America has thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of the world. Standing in the way of yet another global crown for the continent are three high-profile European challengers and Ghana, Africa's last remaining hope.
The headline match of the last eight is the latest rematch between the Netherlands and Brazil, two sides who have already met three times in the competition and have history between them. Of all the big names on show at South Africa 2010, the Dutch have perhaps created the least fuss, quietly going about their job and stringing together four wins in the process. Well-drilled and blessed with a liberal sprinkling of stellar talent, Bert van Marwijk's side now have the challenge of kicking on and fulfilling their promise, so evident during a flawless qualification campaign in which they won all eight of their matches.
Like the Oranje, Brazil also have points to prove, not least where style and flair are concerned. Though both sides are largely pragmatic units these days, meetings between them invariably conjure up wistful recollections of Pele and Johan Cruyff and there should be enough talent on show in Nelson Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth on Friday to ensure an enthralling afternoon. In the day's other match, surprise quarter-finalists Uruguay and Ghana face off for the right to meet the Dutch or Brazil. Uruguay, two-time world champions, owe their run to the last eight to their in-form strike force, not to mention a trusty backline. For their part the adventurous Ghanaians have the not inconsiderable incentive of becoming the first African side to reach the semi-finals of the competition.
Netherlands-Brazil, Nelson Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth, 16.00
Uruguay-Ghana, Johannesburg (Soccer City Stadium), 20.30
The big game
Come rain or shine, Brazil always seem to be there or thereabouts. Dunga's side have done the nation proud so far and have looked fearsomely impressive at times, never more so than in seeing off Côte d’Ivoire 3-1 in their second group outing and then dispatching Chile with ruthless efficiency in the last round. Quite apart from Luis Fabiano's rare gift to strike when least expected, the Brazilians pose a threat all over the pitch. Defensive bulwarks Lucio and Juan have been adding an extra dimension up front, hauling their imposing frames forward for set-pieces around the box. Full-backs Maicon and Michel Bastos have also made quite an impact on their respective flanks, the former scoring a stunning goal against Korea DPR in the group phase. "Putting on a show is great, but what we're most concerned about, though, is reaching the Final," said forward Robinho, making Brazil's priorities abundantly clear.
Van Marwijk's biggest problem throughout the tournament has been to juggle his posse of gifted attackers and keep everyone happy. The likes of Dirk Kuyt, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart can all lay justifiable claims to a starting against the Brazilians. As Maicon explained, however, he and his team-mates will not just be keeping an eye on the Oranje's fleet-footed finishers: "It's not just a question of stopping Robben. [Nigel] De Jong and [Mark] Van Bommel also pose a danger. They're the ones who control the midfield."
Richard Kingson v Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez
The Ghana goalkeeper has been in fearless form in South Africa, though he could be forgiven a few nerves at the prospect of facing the Uruguay strike pair. Kingson's performances between the posts for the Black Stars are all the more creditable for his relative lack of first-team football in recent years. The Ghana custodian has played only 16 league matches since 2007: 11 with Hammarby in Sweden, and five in the English Premier League, one with Birmingham City and four with current club Wigan Athletic. Now with 83 caps to his name, Kingson shone at Germany 2006 and will need to be at his very best against Suarez and Forlan, who have hit five of La Celeste's six goals to date.
What they said
"We have the means to make history. We're going to stick to the style that's brought us this far, and what counts is to be able to switch tactics during the course of a game," Milovan Rajevac, Ghana coach.
Youngsters stand tall: By the time the 2010 FIFA World Cup comes to an end on 11 July, no fewer than 3,840 children will have lent a helping hand at the tournament's 64 matches, 60 at each game. That figure comprises 14 ball boys, 12 national flag carriers, six FIFA Fair Play flag carriers, another six FIFA flag carriers and 22 player escorts.
Robin comes clean: Netherlands striker Robin van Persie might be one of the game's more complex personalities, but at least the Arsenal man has always been the first to admit it. The Round of 16 match with Slovakia provided him with yet another test of character when he was brought off for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar with ten minutes remaining. Unable to conceal his anger at the switch, Van Persie gave Dutch coach Van Marwijk a verbal broadside in front of the watching world.
"You should have substituted Sneijder not me," he allegedly snarled, his words having been deciphered by lip readers on Dutch TV. The target of his ire quickly smoothed things over, however. "I've spoken to the boys," explained Van Marwijk. "This is one controversy that's not even going to get off the ground. You don't have to be friends out on the pitch but having respect for each other is absolutely essential." A suitable chastened Van Persie said: "I hate it when I behave like that."
Goal glut: The Round of 16 at South Africa 2010 produced 22 goals in all, the highest tally in 12 years. Only 15 goals were scored in the same round at Germany 2006 and just two more at Korea/Japan 2002. The record number of strikes for the last 16 was the 26 scored at Mexico 1986, three more than the France 1998 haul. As for the quarter-finals, which came into being in 1986, the record is held by USA 1994, when the four ties yielded an impressive 15 goals.