Euro 2012 - a World Cup without Brazil?
A Rio newspaper on Sunday asserted that the European Championship is a World Cup without Brazil and Argentina. It is an expression used on both sides of the Atlantic - but that does not make it fair.
European teams have disputed the last two World Cup finals but the continent also provides some of the dullest teams in the tournament. The phrase is unfair on Africa and Asia, where South Korea have made a consistent contribution to recent World Cups. If they needed home advantage to reach the semi-finals in 2002, then so did England in 1966 and France in 1998 to register their only wins.
The phrase is also deeply unfair on the rest of South America, a continent which gave ample proof of its current strength two years ago in South Africa. Chile came up with their best-ever performance away from home by making the second round. Paraguay reached the last eight for the first time - and gave champions Spain their most even game on the way to the title. And Uruguay got to the semi- finals.
There could hardly be a greater compliment paid to South American football - the team that came fourth in the world only came fifth in the continent's qualifiers. They had to book their place in South Africa via a play-off with Costa Rica.
There are two key moments in the history of South America's national teams. The first is the birth of the Copa America in 1916, and its staging on an almost annual basis until the Wall Street crash of 1929.
Frequent Copa Americas led to an exchange of ideas and a dynamism of competition which rapidly raised standards of play. This helps explain how Uruguay were able to astonish Europe with the innovative beauty of their play when they won the Olympic gold medals of 1924 and 28 - events which led directly to the birth of the World Cup.
Jose Salomon Rondon helped Venezuela to a point against Uruguay. Photo: Getty
The second key moment comes in 1996, when the continent's ten countries were placed in one big group for World Cup qualifying, playing each other home and away in a marathon competition.
This gave South American national teams the type of calendar that European sides take for granted. Previously there could be gaps if two years between competitive matches. Now there was a regular calendar, with guaranteed income from TV. This meant that countries could keep a side together, grow in confidence and tactical nous, and that there was money available to hire good coaches and invest in youth development.
The benefits of the first moment, back in 1916, were reaped by Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. The benefits of the second moment 80 years later have been distributed more widely. Given its small population Uruguay's decline was seen as inevitable but they have been able to recapture some of their former glory. The likes of Ecuador and Venezuela were seen as a joke, a South American San Marino and Faroe Islands. Not any more. Ecuador have now gone to two World Cups and Venezuela are quite entitled to see themselves on the way to making their debut in the competition.
That feeling is all the stronger after they held Uruguay to a 1-1 draw in Montevideo on Saturday. Perhaps the stand-out aspect of the game was the maturity of the Venezuela team. They set out to frustrate Uruguay and deny them opportunities. They were looking comfortable until falling behind to a typically intelligent piece of movement from Diego Forlan.
After the interval, Venezuela were forced to be more ambitious and, as the second half wore on, they opened up with more attacking substitutions. They played with the assurance of a team confident that its moment would come.
Big centre forward Jose Salomon Rondon was the spearhead. Seven minutes from time, errors from two Uruguayan substitutes gave him the opportunity to meet Juan Arango's cross with a header which nestled in the corner and earned the team a point.
When Venezuela first started winning games a decade ago under coach Richard Paez, their football was inclined to be carefree and loose. Cesar Farias has imposed a different mentality. His team have scored four and conceded four in their five matches of the current campaign. Only Paraguay, who have a game in hand, have scored fewer. No one has conceded less.
Farias is also showing impressive man management skills. He is bringing in players based in Europe with a Venezuelan connection. Saturday's side included two such examples - Athletic Bilbao centre-back Fernando Amorebieta and former Switzerland Under-21 attacking midfielder Frank Feltscher.
This Saturday Venezuela host Chile in round number six. European coaches would do well to take notice - their team might even be drawn against Venezuela in the 2014 World Cup.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
In the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil, it is more or less the same teams participating again, such as Brazil, Australia and Mexico. To avoid this, I feel we should increase the number of teams from eight to 16.
We could have two teams from each of the six confederations, plus Brazil as hosts and the three best teams from the 2010 World Cup who have not qualified otherwise. Vasuki Coomaran
I'm against your proposal because I don't think that what happens on the field in the Confederations Cup is of much relevance. It is a test event, a chance for FIFA and the host nation to work on the organisational side of things. We have the real World Cup with 32 teams. I don't think we gain anything having a mini one with 16.
The resurgence of Vasco de Gama in recent times has been good to see and key to their success has been centre-half Dede. What are the chances of him moving to Europe this summer? Tim Emerton
The chances are improved by Vasco's financial problems - they've been late paying their players. He is a hugely impressive centre-back, quick and strong, dominant and classy. There is perhaps a worry that he might struggle to adapt off the field, but in purely footballing terms he would be an excellent acquisition for a top European club.