Janesville50°

Europe getting last laugh with 3 teams in semis

Print Print
NANCY ARMOUR
July 5, 2010
— A week ago, Europe was done, its biggest stars flops, its supremacy in international soccer hijacked by South America.

So much for that.


Europe is back in its traditional power spot at the World Cup, producing three of the four semifinalists and ensuring its streak of having at least one team in the final since 1934 will continue. (Yes, Brazil and Uruguay were the only two teams that could have won in 1950, but there was no "official" final.)


All that moaning and groaning that could be heard above the din of the vuvuzelas? Only six of Europe's 13 teams making it out of the group stage, compared with all five from South America and two from Asia, which has yet to be mistaken for an international powerhouse? The tantalizing prospect of an all-South American final?


Forget all that. The only outsider remaining is Uruguay, and if it loses to the Netherlands on Tuesday, Europe will be guaranteed its first title in a World Cup held outside the continent. Germany plays Spain in the other semifinal Wednesday.


"What the team showed, it was not only international level, but the level of champions," Germany coach Joachim Loew said after his squad dismantled Argentina, which had emerged as one of the favorites after winning its first four games with flair and style.


"It was," Loew added, "absolute class."


Yes, Europe had its worst showing in the group stage since the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams. But it probably wouldn't have looked quite so bad if not for the misadventures of defending World Cup champ Italy and 2006 runner-up France. And, really, was either teams' crashing and burning that big of a surprise?


Italy was, no other way to put it, old. Nine players on the squad were 30 or over, including 36-year-old captain Fabio Cannavaro. Soccer is a young man's game, and the Italians simply didn't have the legs to keep up in South Africa.


As for France, Les Bleus were a trainwreck waiting to happen since they tumbled out of the 2008 European Championship in the group stage, and they didn't disappoint.


But that hardly meant all of Europe was on the wane. Or that its domestic leagues need to be overhauled to nurture up-and-coming players and ensure veteran players aren't being overworked. And it certainly didn't mean, as some dared suggest, that FIFA should consider taking a few of Europe's World Cup slots away.


Germany, the Netherlands and defending European champion Spain all won their groups, while England finished second to the United States on goals scored. Granted, England made a quick and not very pretty exit in the second round at the feet of Germany. But with the way the Germans are playing, there's no shame in losing to them these days.


The three-time champions are in the semifinals for a third straight World Cup. They've scored four goals in three of their five games; there are teams that left this tournament without four goals total. Lots of 'em, in fact. Germany has rolled over England and Argentina by a combined score of 8-1 and, don't look now, but Miroslav Klose is lurking right behind Ronaldo for most goals in World Cup history.


Klose's two goals in the 4-0 rout of Argentina on Saturday give him 14 total, tying him with German great Gerd Mueller and putting him one behind Ronaldo. And Klose isn't even the top scorer at this tournament. That honor for now, anyway belongs to David Villa, who put Spain in the World Cup's final four for the first time in 60 years Saturday night with his fifth goal in South Africa.


Spain's semifinal with Germany is a game probably better suited for a final. It is, in fact, a rematch of the Euro 2008 final, which the Spanish won to capture their first major title since 1964.


"The Germans have played a brilliant World Cup so far," Andres Iniesta said. "We're also at the top of our game, I think. It will be a game between two rivals who enjoy having the ball, and I think it will be a beautiful battle."


Despite Germany's stingy, organized defense, the Spaniards say the matchup suits their attacking game something that hasn't always materialized in South Africa.


"Two of the best teams in the World Cup have to play in the semifinal, so unlucky for one of them," Spain striker Fernando Torres said. "They are an attacking team and they will try to win, try to attack. But we will have more space to go at them."


The Netherlands have a lock on that dreaded "best team never to win the World Cup" title after losses in the 1974 and '78 finals. And the Dutch haven't always looked like the Clockwork Oranje here.


But they are the only team with a perfect record in South Africa no small thing and their unbeaten streak is up to 24.


"This is the moment we have been waiting for two years," Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk said.


Uruguay has been waiting a while, too. The two-time champions haven't been in the semifinals since 1970, and what better way to declare South America's burgeoning prominence than by having someone other than traditional powerhouses Brazil and Argentina make the final? A team that needed to beat Costa Rica in the playoffs just to get to South Africa, no less.


That assumes, however, that Uruguay can get by the Europeans.


And, unlike how it looked just a few days ago, that's no longer such an easy prospect.



Print Print