It is often said that there are no easy games in world football these days, that the gulf that once separated the big guns from the minnows has shrunk so much that no result can be taken for granted anymore.
The 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ has proved that point time and again, throwing up a number of scorelines that have defied all expectations, with no-one doing more to redraw the global football map than the representatives of the CONCACAF and CAF zones.
Both regions have set new personal bests at Brazil 2014, respectively accounting for three and two of the teams in the Round of 16. Yet, for anyone who has been keeping close tabs on their sides over the last few years, their achievements are merely confirmation of trends that have their origins in world finals gone by.
Fennecs prowling, Eagles soaring
As Fabio Capello said on seeing his Russia side crash out of the tournament following a 1-1 draw with Algeria: “I’ve never seen a World Cup of this standard in my whole life. The quality is absolutely incredible and the pace of the football is so intense.” When a wily competitor such as Capello makes an observation like that, then it must be for a very good reason.
Africa has already made a compelling contribution to the history of the FIFA World Cup, with Cameroon charging to the quarter-finals at Italy 1990, Senegal downing reigning world champions France in the Opening Match of Korea/Japan 2002 and kicking on to reach the last eight, and Ghana coming so close to a place in the semis at South Africa 2010.
On this occasion, however, and for the very first time, there are two teams flying the flag for the continent in the knockout phase.
Algeria have thrilled observers with their pace and power. Their progress to the last 16 has been celebrated around the globe, not least because it has given them a chance to settle an old score, one that dates to Spain 1982. It was on that occasion that Les Fennecs stunned the watching world by beating the mighty West Germany 2-1 in the group phase before unluckily being denied a place in the second round.
Now, 32 years on, Algeria will face the Germans once more, an achievement of which their coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, is rightly proud. “I want to dedicate our qualification to all our fans, who have been waiting so long for this,” he said.
Africa’s other representative in the Round of 16 is Nigeria, who have reached this stage of the competition twice before, the last time a distant 16 years ago. Who better to discuss the feat than Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi, who featured in the Nigerian side that made it the same distance for the first time at USA 1994?
“I’m very happy,” said Keshi. “We wanted Africa to be proud of us and I think we have achieved that.”
*And then there were three *
The CONCACAF Zone also has plenty of reasons to be cheerful, three of them in fact, with Costa Rica outdoing three former world champions in their group, Mexico going unbeaten in Brazil’s section, and USA going down only to pool favourites Germany in Group G.
It is no real surprise to see the Mexicans check back into the knockout phases, a stage they have now reached six times in a row. Only Brazil and Germany can match that record. The Americans, meanwhile, have advanced from the first round in three of the last four editions, even going as far as the quarter-finals at Korea/Japan 2002.
The real overachievers on this occasion are Los Ticos. The first side from the region apart from Mexico to reach the second round, in a memorable campaign at Italy 1990, the Costa Ricans have outdone even that achievement by topping their group, one that contained Uruguay, England and Italy, three heavyweights of world football.
Little wonder, then, that Tico coach Jorge Luis Pinto was so pleased with himself when proceedings in Group C came to an end: “I feel a huge sense of satisfaction. We’re ready now to face anyone and we’ll be doing it with complete confidence in ourselves.” After their performances in one of the toughest sections in the competition, few can doubt him.
Naturally, the success of one continent spells failure for another, with Europe once again punching below its weight. Just as at South Africa 2010, the second round at Brazil 2014 features only six UEFA representatives out of a possible 13, a far cry from the ten who advanced to the second round at Germany 2006.
Asia has fared even worse. Having had two sides survive the group phase four years ago, this time all their contenders fell at the first hurdle, with each and every one of them occupying last place in their groups.
Both Europe and Asia have time now to lick their wounds, regroup and come back stronger. In the meantime, Nigeria, Algeria, Mexico, USA and Costa Rica will look to press on at Brazil 2014, having already made their indelible mark on the competition.