Frankfurt, 1 July 2006. A certain French striker by the name of Thierry Henry pops up from nowhere on the end of a Zinedine Zidane free-kick to outsmart the Brazilian defence and bring the tournament favourites to their knees. However, it was not just the defending champions who on their way out on that night in Germany: South America, whose nations had lit up so many FIFA World Cups™ in the past, was now left without any representation in the semi-finals.
It is now more than a year since that setback for the region, which in a matter of days will once again be embarking on a fresh qualifying campaign. Nevertheless, question marks still remain over that unsatisfactory campaign. Has South America lost ground on the world football map? Has the balance of power shifted elsewhere? FIFA.com chatted exclusively to Carlos Parreira, Jose Pekerman, Anibal Ruiz and Luis Suarez, the coaches of South America's representatives at last year's showpiece event, to find some answers and to preview the region's imminent qualifying tournament for South Africa 2010.
Explanations or bad luck?
Opinion is divided between the quartet as to why their region fared as it did in Germany. On the one hand, Anibal Ruiz and Luis Suarez, who coached Paraguay and Ecuador respectively, take for granted the dominance of the European nations.
Colombian Suarez, who kept his job after taking his team to a historic place in the last 16, stresses that "although you cannot generalise, results indicated that last year at least, European football prevailed over its South American counterpart. But at the same time, that doesn't mean that their national teams are better than ours". Ruiz agrees with him and highlights a fairly impressive statistic during the discussions: "Only Brazil have ever won the competition over in Europe, which shows that in 2006 we just saw history repeating itself in the usual way. Evidently, the European teams are more powerful when playing at home."
The last four at the tournament consisted of Italy, France, Germany and Portugal, something that for the ex-Paraguay coach was more than just a coincidence: "I'm a real lover of tactics, and it was the teams who were most disciplined in this aspect of the game who got through to the final stages. Not the most attractive sides, but certainly the most effective ones."
From their conversation with FIFA.com, both coaches remain convinced that South American football still represents an extremely powerful force in world football. As Suarez points out: "There is a healthy process of change. Now it isn't just Brazilians and Argentinians who are going abroad. They are being joined by Ecuadorians, Colombians, Chileans and Venezuelans. This can only add quality to the national sides." But Maño goes much further than that: "There is a South American in every major team in the world. In the game today, people like Messi, Aguero and Robinho really stand out. This is setting a trend."
The kings of South America, Argentina and Brazil, were quite possibly the continent's biggest disappointments in Germany. The Albiceleste narrowly missed out on penalties against Germany, after a game which still provokes huge tactical discussions on every street corner of their homeland. Jose Pekerman, currently coaching at Toluca in Mexico, cannot escape this phenomenon. "Why weren't there any South American sides in the semi-finals? Well, we nearly made it (smiles). Matches in the quarter-finals are always tight affairs, and I think that we were the most unlucky of all, only going out on penalties. That's what goes down in the record books, but if we talk about it in football terms, I'm convinced that Argentina were the equal of France, Italy and Portugal."
Taking comfort from his conviction that the Albiceleste deserved to progress further, Pekerman turns his focus to Brazil, whose elimination he feels was "the biggest shock". "They had a proven squad with bags of talent and experience," he added. "That was possibly the biggest disappointment of all."
The man who had to take responsibility for that Brazilian defeat was none other than Carlos Parreira, who spoke to FIFA.com from South Africa, where he is charge of the Bafana Bafana as they prepare to host the tournament in 2010. "I don't think that those results represent a crisis in South American football, far from it," he said. "They are just things that can happen in football, and are part and parcel of the game."
In spite of that disappointment, and just hours from the start of a new campaign, both coaches echo their colleagues' sentiments that the upcoming qualifiers will see football of the highest standard. Pekerman sums it up nicely, saying: "Brazil and Argentina are still major forces. Just look at the FIFA World Ranking, in which they never drop out of the top four. All the rest, like England, Italy, France or Spain are constantly swapping places. But we are always right there. And the rest of the countries here continue to export players, which shows that the big clubs in Europe still need to feed off the supply of our footballers. This highlights a trend that should be reflected in the forthcoming qualifying tournament."
Whether brought about by coincidence or consequence, ill fortune or miscalculation, the limited impact of South America's side at last year's showpiece event still rankles. Now though, with a new campaign set to kick off this weekend, the time has come to heal old wounds and make amends.