By Paul Kennedy
The group stage ended with the exit of three European powers, all former
World Cup champions: the holder Spain, four-time champion Italy and England.
But form largely held as Europe and South America, which have produced every World Cup champion, sent six and
five teams, respectively, into the round of 16 -- the same numbers as in 2010.
Concacaf and Africa with three and two teams -- both records -- in the knockout stage each gained one berth
at the expense of Asia, whose four representatives not only all failed to advance but also all failed to win a game.
5/6 South America
Here's a confederation-by-confederation look at how teams fared ...
EUROPE. The big thing that stands out is who is missing: Spain (the defending champion), Italy (for the second time in a row) and England (finishing with its worst record ever). Along
with Germany, they form the big four of European soccer -- at least at the club level.
Burnout after long club campaigns has to be factor in the failures of the trio of European powers.
Notably, all three teams lost their second group games, in the case of Italy and England following their match in Manaus. (The counter to the argument that fatigue contributed to their early ouster
is, of course, that other teams that rely heavily on players from the big European clubs -- teams like Brazil, Argentina and Belgium -- advanced.)
Just six out of 13 European teams
survived the group stage, matching their performance in 2010. It marks a continuing decline, though, in the depth of the European forces. In the three previous World Cups, Europe averaged 9.7 teams
out of the final 16 teams.
Europe should not be written off too quickly, however. European teams were the top three finishers in 2010. They swept the top four spots in 2006. This year,
European teams will enter the knockout stage favored to claim two of the final four berths: Netherlands and France or Germany.
1. Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
2. Karim Benzema (France)
SOUTH AMERICA. The good news is five of six
South American teams -- all but Ecuador -- are through to the round of 16. The bad news is that four of them -- Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay -- find themselves in the same quadrant, so two of
them will be gone by Saturday night, and only one of them will survive past the quarterfinals.
With at least one semifinalist assured, South
America will match its best performance at the last four World Cups, where it has never had more than one team reach the final four (Brazil in 1998 and 2002 and Uruguay in 2010).
Argentina will be favored to make it two South American teams in the final four as it finds itself in a favorable quadrant. But the pressure on the
Albiceleste will be enormous as it has not made the final four since 1990.
South America Standouts:
2. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
3. Neymar (Brazil)
South America Survivors:
CONCACAF. Concacaf just might get a little more respect after a record three teams made the final 16. Costa Rica won its group, finishing ahead of three former
champions, Mexico went unbeaten, tying host Brazil, and the USA advanced out of the Group of Death. Only Honduras, 31st out of 32 teams with three straight losses, did not advance.
Concacaf's performance demonstrates is that the teams at the top make each other better. If they can get through Concacaf, they can be competitive at the World Cup. For Mexico, the World Cup has been
a cakewalk after what it went through in the Hexagonal.
More generally, the conditions the Concacaf teams face in the Hexagonal -- travel, weather conditions, fan support -- made them
very well prepared for what they'd face in Brazil 2014.
1. Rafael Marquez
2. Joel Campbell (Costa Rica).
3. Jermaine Jones (USA).
(BTW, The three keepers of the
surviving Concacaf teams -- Tim Howard, Guillermo Ochoa and Kevan Navas -- have
all been excellent.)
AFRICA. The success of African teams in Brazil has unfortunately been overshadowed by continuing off-the-field problems
between teams and their federations and teams and their local media. For the first time, two Africans teams -- Algeria and Nigeria -- are in the final 16. Ivory Coast was 90 seconds from going
through. And Ghana was in good shape to survive the Group of Death before its crisis on the eve of the Portugal match.
The wealth of young talent spread across European clubs will make
African teams contenders for years to come. But they'll never achieve their potential until they stop shooting themselves in the foot with nasty off-the-field squabbles. Those most responsible are the
federation leaders who prefer to see how many friends they can sign up for junkets to the World Cup rather than find a way to end the years of mistrust with players.
1. Sofiane Feghouli (Algeria).
2. Kenneth Omeruo (Nigeria).
3. Serge Aurier (Ivory Coast).
ASIA. Asia's record in Brazil was pathetic: average of 0.25 points per team, all of three points from three draws in 12
games. This isn't the first time Asia's representatives are failed to clear the first hurdle, but it is a huge setback after 2010 when both Japan and South Korea reached the final 16.
the continental level, the performance shows just how badly soccer has been mismanaged by Asian leaders, beginning with former Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed bin Hammam, who treated the region as his own fiefdom.
Soccer is enormously popular as a spectator sport in parts of Asia -- raking in tons of money in broadcast
rights for the English Premier League -- but that interest has yet to be translated into the development of the game at the competitive level.
1. Mathew Leckie (Australia)
2. Tim Cahill (Australia)
3. Son Heung-Min (South Korea)
*Australia, then in Oceania, advanced.