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World Cup: The Year of Latin America?

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Each World Cup brings a new storyline, and this year is no different. The rise of African football, the year that Spain finally met expectations, the return of England to World Cup prominence-- all of these and others have been mooted as possibilities for 2010. But to this point, all have proven a bust. In fact, having just watched Chile defeat Switzerland, the real story of this year's competition is the dominance of the Western Hemisphere.

Latin American nations, as well as the United States, have not lost one game yet in the preliminary rounds, except for Honduras' 1-0 defeat by another Latin American nation, Chile, and 2-0 to Spain. With the final game left to play in the opening round, it's likely that no fewer than six or even seven of the eight Western Hemisphere representatives will go through, almost half of the final 16 in the quarter finals. This contrasts with the under-performing Europeans, only one of which (Holland) is at the top of its group.

England, Germany, and Italy have all underperformed, whereas the French have just been inept- poetic justice for the handball that brought them through qualifying against the Irish. Portugal looked languid until a wipe-out of North Korea. Spain needed to play the weakest team in the tournament from the Western Hemisphere to notch its first points.

Head to head, Western Hemisphere against Europe, the results have so far been amazing. Chile has knocked off Switzerland, which earlier beat Spain. Paraguay defeated Slovakia and tied Italy; Mexico defeated France; the United States tied both England and Slovenia.

Two of the three teams with two victories after two games (Argentina, Brazil, and Holland) are from Latin America. Every Latin American team except Honduras has at least three points, and the United States has two. No other region begins to approach this early record; only one team from Africa, for example, has more than one point, including host South Africa which will be the first host team in history not to make it out of the preliminary round. The exception is Ghana, which leads a group devoid of a representative from the Western Hemisphere. Asia fares little better.

The World Cup can turn on a dime, especially once the knock-out rounds begin. But the initial storyline has to be the overall success of the Western Hemisphere, positioning the region very well to advance deeply into the tournament.

As I've earlier predicted, I still like Brazil as the tournament champion. Argentina also looks strong, although one wonders whether the drama that always accompanies their coach will catch up to them over the course of a month-long tournament. My heart, though, is first with the United States, of course, and then Mexico and other Latin American nations that have yet to win the trophy.

Stay tuned, more to come.

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