The Group Stage at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa has wrapped up, and the tournament has provided two weeks of stories and surprises.
In what has been a rare occurrence in recent years, all 7 countries that have previously won the World Cup qualified for this year's competition (Uruguay, who won 2 of the first 4 World Cups, is making only their 4th appearance since 1974). Five of the 7 (Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Germany and England) advanced to the Round of 16, with Italy and France failing to win a single game in South Africa.
It was on-the-field issues costing Italy, making them only the 4th defending champion to fail to get out of the Group Stage in tournament history (a dubious honor the country has now accomplished twice---then 2-time defending champions, Italy failed to advance at the 1950 tournament). An aging team saw their share of injuries (including a back injury that knocked star goalkeeper Gigi Buffon out of the tournament in the team's opening match), and were held in their 2nd game to a draw by lowly New Zealand (the 3rd-lowest ranked team in the tournament, 73 places below the 5th-ranked Italians). The final match saw Slovakia super-sub Kamil Kopunek score the decisive goal---with his first touch of the game---that would seal Italy's fate and send them home.
For France, it was a much different story. On-the-field issues were caused by plenty of off-the-field drama---a star striker sent home, a player strike costing the team an important training session and a handshake-refusing coach, just to name a few. "Lame duck" coach Raymond Domenech's replacement had already been hired before the team flew to South Africa, and the players challenged Domenech's selections (such as sitting star Thierry Henry, who started every game on the bench). This led to an eventual half-time confrontation between Domenech and striker Nicholas Anelka, a profanity-laced tirade that ended with Anelka packing his bags, beginning his Spanish vacation while his teammates took on South Africa in their final game of the tournament. The players protested Anelka's dismissal by refusing to train just 2 days before their win-or-go-home South Africa match, a game they would trail 2-0 before scoring their only goal of the tournament. After the match, the team---which flew down First Class---packed into the coach section of a converted cargo plane for a no-frills flight back to France, where Henry was called to meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy to explain the team's drama-filled debacle of a tournament.
It's also been a World Cup filled with firsts. It's the first World Cup held on the African continent. South Africa became the first host nation to be eliminated in the Group Stage. For the first time, none of the 32 participants are making their first trip to the World Cup. And that Italy/France combination marked the first time that neither finalist from the previous World Cup advanced to the Round of 16 (Italy beat France in the '06 Final, a match best known for Zinedine Zidane's headbutt).
For the United States, it's been a tournament filled with late-game and come-from-behind drama and referee controversy. The comeback draws against England and Slovenia, combined with the last-gasp win over Algeria saw the U.S. go undefeated in the Group Stage for the first time since 1930, which is also the last time the U.S. finished at the top of the group before this summer. In consecutive matches, the Americans have set ratings-records for ESPN, a record surely at risk with Saturday's Round of 16 match against Ghana, the team that knocked them out of the '06 World Cup. How far the 14-ranked U.S. team can go is anyone's guess. Ghana is ranked 32nd, and the winner faces a quarterfinal match-up against the winner of 16th-ranked Uruguay and 47th-ranked South Korea.
There's been a continental story in this World Cup, as well. Five South American teams qualified for the tournament, and all 5 are in the Round of 16---four of them (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) winning their groups. That could continue a trend for South America; only teams from South America and Europe have won the World Cup, and no European team has won it when the competition was held outside of their home continent. The pride of hosting the tournament hasn't been enough for Africa, though---Ghana is the only one of 6 African teams to advance. Europe, with the most participants in the tournament (13 teams), has also struggled. Only 6 European teams are featured in the Round of 16, though they do include 3 of the 8 group winners (Germany, Spain and the Netherlands).
Two other stories of this World Cup are out of the player's control---the ball and a traditional plastic horn. Adidas' Jabulani ball, a name that translates to "celebration," has been anything but a party for players. Goalkeepers and defenders have complained about the balls ability to dip, dive and swerve. Combine the ball and the altitude (more than half of the venues are more than 4,000 ft. above sea level), and attacking players have had to deal with sky-high shots and over-hit crosses. And if trying to track the ball isn't hard enough, trying to communicate has been even harder. While local culture is usually something teams actually do celebrate at the World Cup, the vuvuzela horns have had teams complaining about their ability to hear instructions on the field. The buzz of the horns, compared to a swarm of bees, led TV techs to double the filters used on crowd noise for their telecasts. The problem does appear limited to those on the field and on their couch, though; people in attendance, including former President Bill Clinton, have said that the atmosphere in each stadium is extraordinary, and the vuvuzela has a lot to do with it.
Some other interesting facts from the Group Stage:
- New Zealand, ranked 78th and playing in just their 2nd World Cup (their first since 1982), went undefeated but didn't advance. The All-Whites picked up ties against Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia (the 5th, 31st, and 34th-ranked teams, respectively). Their 3 points put them ahead of Italy, but 1 point shy of Slovakia for 2nd in the group.
-North Korea, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament (105th in the world) and drawn into the "Group of Death" with Brazil (1st), Portugal (3rd) and the Ivory Coast (27th) scored as many goals (1) in the tournament as France. That's a bit more embarrassing for the French, ranked 9th in the world coming into competition, who narrowly avoided joining Honduras and Algeria as the only teams to not score a goal in the Group Stage.
-Despite being eliminated, Italy's 4 goals scored was equal to, or better than, 10 of the 16 teams still alive.
-The United States had as many "good" goals disallowed by the referee (2) as 8th-ranked England scored in 3 games.