In my World Cup primer a couple weeks ago, I predicted that the peculiarities of the draw could favor the African squads and result in a situation where many of the top Europeans squads were lined up on one side of the bracket. It appears I will only be half-right.
The first World Cup in Africa has actually been a showcase for the western hemisphere. Teams from the Americas are likely going six for six in terms of advancement (Chile currently leads group H, but could still in danger). Brazil and Argentina lived up to, perhaps even exceeded, high expectations, while Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay surged unexpectedly to the top of their groups.
Europe, on the other hand, has seen two of its top teams sent packing, as the '06 finalists, France and Italy, both failed to make it past the group stage. England and Germany needed wins in their finals games in order to avoid joining them, as does #2 ranked Spain, who faces off with a very tough Chilean side on Friday.
Though I would still contend FIFA had the best of intentions, it was to no avail, as it appears only one African side, Ghana, will advance past the group stage. Nigerian striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni can look forward to a lifetime of nightmares after missing an wide open net from two yards out against South Korea (in one of the best matches of the tournament thusfar). A simple straight-forward strike could have assured Nigeria a spot in the knockout round. The host nation also played admirably, but trailed Mexico slightly on goal differential. Cameroon, Africa's top-ranked side, was the first team eliminated, a massive disappointment, only overshadowed by the pathetic performance of the French. Ivory Coast has not yet been officially eliminated, but they will need a huge win over North Korea and some help from Brazil to catch the Portugese.
Africa now pins all their hopes on Ghana, who will face the U.S. in the first game of the second-round. The knockout draw, now more than half set, is looking quite uneven. The winner of U.S. v. Ghana faces the winner of Uruguay v. South Korea, assuring that at least one "underdog" will make it to the semi-finals. The United States are the top-rated team in their quadrant (#14 according to FIFA). They have not made the semi-finals since 1930, and have never advanced to the finals. Ghana has never won a knockout game, having passed the group stage for the first time in 2006. South Korea made the semis in '02 on their home turf, but this is only their second trip to the knockout round. Uruguay are former champions, but they haven't made a semi-final since 1970.
By contrast, England's quadrant features three teams ranked in FIFA's top ten, two of which must be considered among the overall favorites. So far, Diego Maradona has made his critics look rather silly. His controversial selections, including 35-year-old Juan Veron and converted defender Jonas Gutierrez, have played extraordinarily well. Argentina is currently the only team with three wins (Brazil and Chile could join them tomorrow) and are the tournament's leading scorers. Both Germany and England were given wake-up calls in the group stage, as Germany dropped a game to the Serbs and England tallied draws against both the Americans and Algerians. The chalk certainly favors a showdown of Argentina and Germany, countries with a long history of World Cup rivalry, most recently a quarterfinal showdown in 2006 that was decided on penalty kicks.
Tomorrow's games could easily result in an even more spectacularly lethal "quadrant of death." Based on the current standings, Brazil (#1), Spain (#2), and the Netherlands (#4) would join Slovakia (#34). The two incoming favorites, Brazil and Spain, would be forced to face each other in the first knockout round. Spain's best chance of preventing this outcome is handily beating Chile. Even then, if Portugal (#3) were to upset Brazil, they could still be set up for a showdown.
I, personally, enjoy seeing the powerhouses clash as early as possible. And, to that extent, this draw has worked out excellently. The second round will likely feature at two matchups of top-ten teams (Germany v. England and Spain v. Brazil/Portugal). Although some of the favored darkhorses (Serbia, Ivory Coast, etc.) did not survive, the draw is still set up for a historically deep run by one or more low-seeded teams. The outcome of the USA/Ghana game will yield one such team, while Paraguay and Chile have favorable positions on the opposite side of the bracket.