Europe enjoy continental drift in African World Cup

Johannesburg: A World Cup that started in embarrassment and disarray for Europe came to be dominated by three of its teams playing with levels of skill and discipline that South America simply could not match.

Spain`s win over Netherlands on Sunday gave Europe a first World Cup triumph outside the continent and while the final was a scrappy affair the two teams reached it by virtue of keeping possession, moving well off the ball and waiting for chances.

Germany, who took a deserved third place by beating Uruguay, played in a more direct style and there was much to admire, and emulate, in a young team that produced the performance of the tournament in their 4-0 quarter-final humiliation of Argentina.

Europe edged 10-9 ahead of South America in the tally of World Cup wins but it would be too simplistic to see this as any great seismic shift in the balance of power.

The continental drift in South Africa was a breakthrough for Europe, certainly, but one that disguised worrying signs of weakness beyond that imperious trio of teams with their fleet-footed, quick-thinking, highly skilled players.

South America

The start of the World Cup was all about South America.

It was not until one of the final two games in the group phase that a European team managed to beat one from South America, with Spain edging Chile 2-1 to send both sides through.

The other four South American sides all made it through as group winners, and for the first week or two all around them Europe`s finest were in disappointing form on the pitch, with some in disarray off it too.

Italy and France, champions and runners-up in 2006, were both eliminated during the group phase.

Italy`s team, described as billy goats by their midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, were too old, too slow and too cautious as they capitulated in a 3-2 defeat by Slovakia.

France were even worse, causing a national crisis when the players went on strike, refusing to train before exiting meekly in a defeat against the hosts.

England were scarcely any better, managing one group-phase win against Slovenia and draws with the United States and Algeria before a 4-1 defeat by Germany finally put an overhyped, underperforming team out of their misery.

There had been trouble in the England camp, too, with Italian coach Fabio Capello reprimanding John Terry for making public comments over team selection.

Minor Players

Second-tier European teams contributed a couple of upsets but never hinted at breaking through.

Slovakia had that great win over Italy before losing to the Dutch, Serbia beat Germany in the group phase but then failed to make it through, Denmark were well beaten by Japan.

Greece were anonymous and Slovenia blew a great chance to progress when they let slip a 2-0 lead against the US.

Switzerland began their campaign with a scarcely credible 1-0 win over Spain only to find they had peaked far too early and make an exit at the group phase.

Portugal, 7-0 winners over North Korea in their second game, failed to score in any of their other matches and lost 1-0 to Spain in the second round, with Cristiano Ronaldo doing nothing to justify his huge reputation.

Spain`s run to the final was hardly one for soccer romantics either. After that dispiriting defeat by a limited Swiss side they improved by tiny increments, grasping for the easy style that took them to victory at Euro 2008 and scoring just eight goals in their seven games.

The Dutch were quietly efficient in the early games before exploding into life in the quarter-final comeback against Brazil and taking that form all the way through to the final.

Beyond the top two, both trying to play the cultivated style of Europe`s most influential side, Barcelona, and a Germany team in a process of rebuilding there was not much for Europe to rejoice in.

A one-two-three finish and a new name on the trophy was of course a triumph and provided a new model that France, Italy, England and the other lumbering heavyweights would do well to follow at the 2014 finals.

Bureau Report

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