The group phase is over and with more than half of the tournament gone, thereÃ¢ÂÂs one undisputable winner, continent-wise: South America.
The five Conmebol representatives have played 15 group games, won 10 and drawn four Ã¢ÂÂ and Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay have topped their groups (with Chile topping highly-fancied Spain's group before their last-day clash). Surprise? Not exactly, at least for the locals.
The road to South Africa 2010 was tough in South America, with one of the hardest-fought qualifying sections ever seen. While powerhouses Brazil and Argentina struggled under new management (Dunga and Alfio Basile took over in 2006, the latter being replaced by Diego Maradona in 2009), other sparring partners took centre stage. Strong, convincing football left no doubt that they would put a fight at the World Cup Ã¢ÂÂ as weÃ¢ÂÂre now witnessing.
In particular, Paraguay and Chile's multi-talented and tactically disciplined generation of players have been storming the continent since 2006.
Paraguay started the qualifiers brilliantly, consecutively beating Uruguay (1-0), Ecuador (5-1), Chile (0-3) and Brazil (1-0, the only SeleÃÂ§ÃÂ£o defeat in the qualifiers). Roque Santa Cruz, Nelson Haedo Valdez and Salvador CabaÃÂ±as Ã¢ÂÂ oh, how Paraguay miss him Ã¢ÂÂ created an exciting and efficient attacking trio, which, backed up by the guaraniÃ¢ÂÂs traditional tough defence, secured the tournament lead for several weeks.
In the qualifiersÃ¢ÂÂ second round, when Paraguay cooled down and Brazil returned to the lead, it was ChileÃ¢ÂÂs turn to step forward Ã¢ÂÂ showing the same attacking mindset that had gained Paraguay the continentÃ¢ÂÂs respect. Matias Fernandez, Alexis Sanchez and Humberto Suazo (Conmebol's top scorer), set up by maestro Jorge Valdivia, helped Chile take the elevator and climb up to the second place overall.
A closer look at the final table gives a real idea of how close was the challenge for the title: Brazil finished with 34 points, with Chile and Paraguay tied for second with 33. Argentina came far behind, with 28, followed by Uruguay, with 24.
Those two last places could have been switched if the Celeste had not lost to the Argentinians in the qualifierÃ¢ÂÂs final match, in Montevideo Ã¢ÂÂ a crucial game that rescued the Albiceleste honor and might have turned MaradonaÃ¢ÂÂs boys from chumps to champs.
But where does all that sidekick strength come from? Besides the aforementioned great player breed of the recent years, I think thereÃ¢ÂÂs two things that might Ã¢ÂÂ might Ã¢ÂÂ help explain it.
First, the Copa Libertadores: South AmericaÃ¢ÂÂs own Champions League increases in importance and quality year after year. Clubs from Chile, Paraguay and other countries have benefited from regular interaction with the big boys and from the war-like atmosphere of the tournament Ã¢ÂÂ undoubtedly a great preparation to a World Cup.
(That can be also stretched to Mexico, another Latin America country that has also been impressive in South Africa Ã¢ÂÂ since early in the last decade, their teams have played in the Libertadores and other Conmebol competitions.)
And theyÃ¢ÂÂre not just taking part: the supporting cast have been knocking out a bunch of Brazilian and Argentinian leading names Ã¢ÂÂ only this year, Universidad de Chile eliminated Flamengo, Velez was sent home by Mexican Chivas Guadalajara, and so on.
Second, Argentina: letÃ¢ÂÂs pay the due tribute the hermanos. ThereÃ¢ÂÂs a great football interaction between the neighbours from the south and the rest of Spanish-speaking Latin America. ThereÃ¢ÂÂs so many Argentinian coaches and players around there that we donÃ¢ÂÂt even keep track of. Their experience, IÃ¢ÂÂm sure, has elevated other countriesÃ¢ÂÂ games.
Not coincidentally, Paraguay and Chile are coached by two Argentinians: Gerardo Martino and Marcelo Bielsa, respectively. Hats off to them.
IÃ¢ÂÂm sure every South American is proud of this collective performance Ã¢ÂÂ proud, but not entirely happy. After all, Brazilian and Argentinians wonÃ¢ÂÂt be satisfied until the arch-enemy is knocked down. But weÃ¢ÂÂll have to wait till the next stage, at least...