For those of thought Japan-Korea signalled the start of a new new hierarchy in world football Germany 2006 will demand a rethink.
Four years ago Senegal shocked France in the opening game and went on to the quarter-finals. Meanwhile Turkey and South Korea found their way to the last four while Argentina and France went home early. For all that the final was contested by the powerhouses Germany and Brazil and this year football’s old world teams have been dismissive of their new world challengers.
There are often demands to give more spaces to teams from play bazaar Asia or Africa to make the World Cup a more global event but the results don’t back the argument up. All four Asian teams failed at the group stages, one of five Africans made it through and just Mexico from the four CONCAF teams squeaked out of their group only to run into the Argentineans.
The European and South American teams have been dominant each qualifying three-quarters of their entrants to the final sixteen. They weren’t especially troubled on the way as even the beleaguered French team managed a comfortable 2-0 victory over Togo when they had to. The Ivory Coast and South Korea offered some spirited resistance but only after they had fallen behind.
Each region must find their own solutions. Asia can take solace in their relative inexperience of their teams at this level, the progress their players have made in the past decade and the confidence players like Park Ji-Sung and Hideotoshi Nakata have shown playing with Europe’s best clubs. Iran, Japan and the Korea showed high standards of passing and organisation that gave them opportunities in every game they played while only the Saudis looked poor, unable to turn their wealth into results. But all teams from the Asian region struggled to cope with the physicality of the other nations and they need to come up with a system to negate more powerful opponents. The awesome levels of energy displayed by Korea in 2002 offer one answer but it is difficult to maintain this level over long periods.
The CONCAF region receives massive support from FIFA who are desperate to maintain strong markets in Mexico and the USA. FIFA give three and a half spots to CONCAF which all but guarantees qualification for Mexico and the US and their Byzantine ranking system rated these countries as the 4th and 5th best teams going into the World Cup. There’s nothing wrong with FIFA supporting football in the area but the extra spaces mean that the top teams are not challenged in qualifying while the high rankings breed false expectations and jealousy from other nations. Mexico gave Argentina a tough game but struggled through their group and team USA showed plenty of athleticism but little of the guile required at this level. The other teams, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago added to the party but not much to the overall quality.
Africa will have the most hope for the future and can look forward to South Africa 2010 with some confidence. They qualified three new teams to the tournament this year, a good indicator of rising standards. Ghana came through a tough group with an all action style to become just the fifth African team to qualify for the final stages, and the absence of Essien from their last 16 clash with Brazil is a disappointment for neutrals everywhere. The Ivory Coast won plenty of admiration for their attacking intent and would surely have progressed from an easier group but some of their defending was suicidal against the quality of Argentina and Holland and they only turned it on after falling behind. Angola seemed overawed and Togo wrecked their chances by sacking the manager who saw them through to the finals, replacing him with an arrogant European and then fighting over how the spoils should be divvied up. The Tunisians met most expectations with their all-round dullness. Individually Africa can produce the players and the naivety seen in earlier tournaments is long gone as most top African players ply their trade across Europe but collectively the whole is less than the sum of the parts and we still await the African team that is not just dangerous but deadly.
The Europeans and South Americans have upped their standard this year. The worn-out adage that their are no easy games any more has finally been taken to heart with the top teams now more focused on and aware of their opponents than in the past. The new soccer nations need to match their effort and desire just to keep up but there is hope. Oceania’s one qualifier Australia have stormed the World Cup with little respect for reputation. The verve they have shown should be a beacon to emergent nations everywhere.