World Cup 2014: Who holds the balance of power in world football?


Brazil's World Cup has been played in the style that so many hoped for once football's showpiece was awarded to the country regarded as the home of the game's free spirits.

The last three weeks have provided a consistent narrative of fast, attacking football and excitement - exactly as the game's rulers would have imagined it when they handed the tournament to Brazil.

Even the line-up for the last eight has a balance that brings pleasure to the purists, as four teams from the Americas are complimented by a quartet from Europe - all of them group winners.

The destiny of this World Cup will be decided in the iconic surroundings of the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday week but all quarter-finalists have the opportunity to show where the balance of power lies between the two continents.
























The seven World Cups held here in the Americas have failed to produce a European winner. On the flip side, Brazil are the only nation from the Americas to achieve a win on European soil - when they triumphed 5-2 in the final against hosts Sweden 56 years ago.

So for Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal, France's Didier Deschamps, Germany's Joachim Low and the Belgian Marc Wilmots there is the dual opportunity to make history for their countries and exert European domination.

For the likes of Luiz Felipe Scolari, attempting to win his second World Cup with Brazil, and Argentina's Alejandro Sabella in particular, there is the chance to send Europe home empty-handed once more.

World Cup 2014 managers

Continental shift: (Clockwise from top left) Joachim Low and Didier Deschamps are seeking a first European win in the Americas; Luiz Felipe Scolari and Alejandro Sabella aim to keep the trophy in South America

At this stage Europe has often dominated. When Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay reached the last eight in South Africa four years ago, it was the first time representation from the Americas had been so strong since the Mexico World Cup in 1970.

So a similar number here represents a continued resurgence and an advance on the dark days of 1990 and 1994 when only one nation from the Americas reached the last eight - although Brazil did what mattered in the United States and claimed the trophy against Italy on penalties.

World Cup 2014: Germany 2-1 Algeria (aet) highlights

It was an era when the great Diego Maradona was critically on the wane for Argentina, even though they advanced to lose a desperately dull final to West Germany at Italia 90 - the South Americans showing they could still usually get one team in at the World Cup's sharp end.

The figures started to stack up a little more attractively with two teams from the Americas at this stage in 1998, 2002 and 2006 - and now we have the face-off here in Brazil.

So do these figures represent a lasting shift in the balance of power back towards the Americas, or are there just geographical forces at work?

Germany coach Low believes tournaments held in South America hold a special appeal for those born there. As he prepared for an all-European quarter-final against France, he said: "The South and Central Americans - Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica - have certainly shown that on their continent they want to show their class.

"They want to show the entire world 'this is where we're playing, this is our continent and we will do whatever is necessary to satisfy our fans and our countries'.

James Rodriguez

Colombia's James Rodriguez has been a standout player with five goals in the tournament so far

"It was no surprise that these teams performed so well. They are very strong; they are at home on this continent and you can feel that."

The continued influx of South American players into Europe since those struggles in the early 90s has bred familiarity with the style and demands, producing more rounded players and perhaps helping in the World Cup environment. The three superstars of the tournament so far - Brazil's Neymar, Lionel Messi of Argentina and the emerging Colombian James Rodriguez - ply their trades at Barcelona and Monaco respectively.

South America football writer Tim Vickery also believes the continent benefited from a change in the qualification process.

"There can be no doubt that the so-called lesser nations in South America have made dramatic strides since the introduction of the marathon World Cup qualification format in 1996," he said. "Regular competitive games and guaranteed income has allowed them to appoint good coaches and build proper sides.

World Cup 2014: Argentina 1-0 Switzerland (aet) highlights

"The South American nations realised that the forces of globalisation take their players to Europe at an ever-earlier age. The youth sides are where they secure them for the long-term future of the national team - where talented players are identified and given a crash course in their country's footballing identity."

The South, Central and North Americans have also bought into the fast-flowing, high-tempo styles that have been a feature of this World Cup. The African sides such as Nigeria and Algeria have shown the way too.

It would be wrong to suggest defence has become a forgotten art but the most successful teams have embraced the mood of swift, counter-attacking intent.

Vahid Halilhodzic

Algeria's manager, Vahid Halilhodzic, led them out of the group stage for the first time

Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic, whose team created such a fine impression before going out to Germany in extra time in the last 16, believes the demands of the European leagues have also given the Americas an opportunity to make their mark here.

"The debacles of some European teams like Italy, Spain or even England - although for me England was not a surprise - were due to the fact they were a little bit tired," he said. "There was some saturation because their own national leagues were difficult, challenging, with a high number of matches.

"They rested for a few days but it's not enough. There was a lot of physical tiredness but also psychological - a lack of motivation I've seen in some of the European teams. For me, some players who had won a number of things and were not really willing to win here. They didn't want to make more money or really give it their all to win the World Cup."

World Cup 2014: Netherlands 2-1 Mexico highlights

He believes this particularly applied to the dramatic decline in holders Spain, who were expected by many to fly the flag for Europe once more as they attempted to break through the South American barrier and retain the trophy.

"There was a lack of ambition," he said. "They won absolutely everything in the last decade and I think they were not willing to fight any more."

One element that has always been regarded as having a significant influence is the heat of the Americas, in particular the fierce temperature of two tournaments held in Mexico.

Former England winger Chris Waddle said: "Of course there is an advantage for players who have been brought up in hot climates, but I think with modern sports science and preparation techniques it is not as much of a factor as it was.

"I played in Mexico in 1986 and that was really hard. It was played at altitude and the temperatures were up about 35 to 40 degrees.

"In some ways we were the guinea pigs back then and now, in the modern era, you've got dieticians, sports scientists and all manner of people who give you advice on how to get the most out of your body. I think it is a more level playing field for European teams coming to places like Brazil now."

And on that level playing field in Brazil, a wonderful World Cup has delivered a straight fight for supremacy between Europe and the Americas.