Teams from Concacaf and Conmebol have enjoyed superiority, leaving only six European teams in the last 16
An Italian player tells the story of his team’s defeat against Costa Rica. Late in the second half when he and his team-mates were flagging, struggling to keep up, an opponent came up to him and asked, a knowing grin on his face: “Are you enjoying this? Because we are.” The truth was inescapable. “We were dying and they knew it. They could see it and they told us, right to our faces,” the Italian says.
Famously no European team has won the World Cup in Latin America but before the World Cup the England manager, Roy Hodgson, claimed: “European teams are better travellers now.”
So far it does not look like it; this has been a World Cup for the Americas. The Italian player could not believe how comfortable his opponents appeared, describing them as “pure athletes”, seemingly unburdened by the heat and humidity. There was a confidence about the way they enjoyed watching Italy suffer, as if they always knew that would happen.
Italy are not alone. Europe has struggled. Spain, England, Portugal, Russia and Croatia have, like Italy, departed. Belgium are going through a group with no teams from the Americas, Germany are above the USA and Greece’s qualification still saw them finish behind the only American team in the group: Colombia. Barring Australia causing a shock, one of Holland or Spain had to go through, although the Dutch did finish ahead of Chile.
Only France and Switzerland have bucked the trend, finishing above Ecuador and Honduras.
When it comes to head-to-head records, the dominance of the Americas is even more striking. Teams from the Americas have won eight, drawn three (one of them the USA against Portugal) and lost four. France and Switzerland have a significant impact on those statistics. Without them, the figures would read: 7 American wins, 2 draws, 1 European win.
So is there an explanation? “No,” said Javier Mascherano after Argentina’s victory over Nigeria. It’s not easy playing in Latin America and now people are realising that.”
After Italy’s first game against England Claudio Marchisio admitted that players almost felt as if they were “hallucinating.” He said it was difficult to remain lucid. “A lot of the European teams are struggling compared to the Latin Americans,” Gianluigi Buffon said, “but that is not an excuse. The conditions are the same for everyone.”
So why then? And why has this tournament been so open, with leads changing hands and lots of goals?
Mascherano pauses. “It’s different. World Cups here are more difficult. The pitches are not like they are in Europe. They’re drier and slower. The climate is different, the time [zones] are different. There are lots of variables that make it that football is not played with the speed with which European teams are used to playing. Maybe that suits the South American teams more.
“Hopefully those variables will favour the South American teams because that would mean that we have a chance. But, don’t be hasty: Holland are not South American and they are playing very well.”
It is tempting to see the conditions as at least partly responsible for the nature of the games so far, especially late into matches. “The second halves are longer than you wish them to be here,” says the Nigerian striker Peter Odemwingie. “Any team can surprise any team at this World Cup. If you are fit, you are going to get scoring opportunities. That is the key.
“My first impression from this World Cup is that the fittest team will win it.”