32 sides became 16 in the space of four days and it was a bad week for Italian coaches, with Cesare Prandelli (Italy), Alberto Zaccheroni (Japan) and Fabio Capello (Russia) all eliminated. Here is what caught our eye from this round of games...
Finally some R-E-S-P-E-C-T for CONCACAF
In FIFA's current world rankings (in which Netherlands are 15 and England 10) there are 19 European nations in the top 32 and 10 in the top 16. But in the last 16 of the World Cup, there are only six sides from Europe. Compare this to previous editions: in 2010, there were also six, fewer than in 2006 (10), 2002 (9), 1998 (10), 1994 (10) and 1990 (10). Is there a decline in European teams? Do they perform worse in hot climates? Not necessarily: in 2010, there were only three in the last eight, but they ended up finishing first, second and third.
There was a lot of talk pre-tournament that the qualifying system was unfair; too many places to Central America's CONCACAF teams (3.5) and Asia's AFC contingent (4.5), and not enough for Europe's UEFA teams (13). And yet the last 16 has a global breakdown with more combined Central American and South American qualifiers (8) as European teams (6). By confederation, here is the breakdown in terms of teams in Brazil, and who made it through the group stage:
The biggest disappointment comes from Asia (second tournament running with no teams in the second round; every team finishing bottom without a win between them), while the success stories are Africa , with two teams for the first time in the last 16, and Central America. "Our CONCACAF region is finally getting the respect it deserves," said Mexico coach Miguel Herrera. "Some previous winners have already gone home, but we are still around, and Costa Rica. People did not expect it, but the standard of football in our region is getting higher all the time, and this could be the tournament that proves it." What it shows is that while no confederation may be entirely happy with its allocation, FIFA have it about right.
Mondragon the super-sub
This has been a World Cup of impact subs, with 26 goals, so far, coming from players who did not start games. This might be down to the heat in Brazil, with coaches deliberately holding back some players to take on opponents with tired legs. But there was one substitute that has been the best, and probably will remain that case, of the entire tournament. Faryd Mondragon came on aged 43 to play the last 10 minutes of Colombia¹s 4-1 win over Japan, and so broke Roger Millla's record as the oldest player at a World Cup. It was an emotional moment; David Ospina rallying the crowd to give Mondragon a huge ovation as the player he called "my hero" replaced him.
Mondragon's hug of gratitude to coach Jose Pekerman, and then his one-on-one save from a Japanese chance, made it a memorable moment for the player whose last World Cup game was against England in 1998. Mondragon's experience in the squad is said to have helped the young players enjoy their time in Brazil and Pekerman's masterful man-management of the situation can only have helped forge what already looks like an unbreakable bond between the players.
What about the losers?
And one by one, the coaches fall, even those who signed contract extensions before the World Cup. With 16 teams knocked out in the last four days, that means 16 detailed post-mortems, and months of analysis and agonising over where it all went wrong. Cesare Prandelli resigned, as did Sabri Lamouchi, Alberto Zaccheroni and Carlos Queiroz, within minutes of their teams' eliminations. Others may follow in the next few weeks, as some are "weighing up their futures". With every coach that bites the dust, one man must feel a little bit more grateful that he is still in a job. England boss Roy Hodgson said that his team's performance in Brazil "bodes well for the future" but you have to ask why that is relevant: surely you don't use a World Cup to prepare for the future, but to try and win in the present? Somehow, Hodgson managed it, and kept his job for so doing. Paulo Bento, Portugal coach, can consider himself just as fortunate.
Brazil's geography playing its part
Before the tournament began, the fear was that the sheer size of Brazil would cause problems for teams like USA who had huge distances to travel. Instead, the venues might have played a decisive role, but in a different way. The results of teams who have played in the hottest and most humid venues - Manaus (above) and Cuiaba - have been poor in their next match. While no-one doubts the preparations for playing there, question marks have arisen over the recovery periods, given that England, Italy, Croatia, Cameroon and USA/Portugal all lost after playing in Manaus. In Cuiaba, it was a similar story: Australia, Russia, South Korea, and Nigeria lost, with Chile and Bosnia-Herzegovina the only sides not to. Where does this leave us ahead of the last 16? Colombia just played in Cuiaba, while Switzerland played in Manaus...
The two sides of coaching in Africa
And we wonder why there are not more local coaches in charge of African teams at the World Cup. There were differing levels of success for the only two African coaches in Brazil, with Stephen Keshi becoming the first African to coach a team to the last 16. It shouldn¹t even be worthy of mention but it is, and not least because his relationship with the Nigerian FA has been tense from even before he won the African Nations Cup 18 months ago. Keshi deserves huge credit for what he has done, but he's unlikely to get it.
To anyone who wonders why African countries prefer to employ European coaches, you need to look at the example of Ghana's dramatic stay in Brazil. Led by former international Kwesi Appiah, they showed great spirit in the first two group games but lost their final game to Portugal - not before the squad had become embroiled in controversy, with a row over bonus payments, Sulley Muntari sent home for allegedly slapping an FA committee member and Kevin-Prince Boateng expelled for swearing at the coach. Would Boateng and Muntari behaved like that had a high-profile European coach been in charge?
It¹s a difficult one, as Cameroon's German coach (Volker Finke) could not stop his players' indiscipline. But you can't help thinking that, right or wrong, Europe-based players tend to respect a European coach more and that makes the task even harder for the local bosses to take the step up.
Team of the round
Enyeama (Nigeria), Gamboa (Costa Rica), Godin (Uruguay), Gonzalez (USA) Holebas (Greece), De Jong (Holland), Vazquez (Mexico), Shaqiri (Switzerland), Messi (Argentina), Rodriguez, (Colombia) Neymar (Brazil).
Ben Lyttleton is the author of ‘Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty’ (Bantam Press), out now.
- Sports & Recreation
- Faryd Mondragon
- Alberto Zaccheroni
- Cesare Prandelli