Whose World Cup Is It?

07/06/2010 10:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The commentators, analysts and politicians all had it wrong. In the beginning, they all decried that the World Cup belonged to Africa.

Of the six African teams at the tournament, only one -- Ghana -- survived the group stage. So, Africa was out.

But wait!

South American teams performed unexpectedly well. In fact, all five South American teams advanced out of the group stage, and the only South American team not in the quarterfinals (Chile), was knocked out by Brazil, from, you guessed it, South America. Out goes Africa, in comes South America.

A supplementary story was also being written as the World Cup moved along, a sad tale chronicling the sudden decline of European football. Seven European teams were knocked out in the group stage and three more were added to the dustbin in the quarterfinals. Europe's place atop the football pyramid was very much in doubt.

But wait!

The fall of South American football was about as rapid as its rise. Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay were each booted out by European teams in the quarterfinals. Thus ended South America's short reign over the football kingdom.

Holland's semifinal victory over Uruguay sealed the deal. The elimination of the sole remaining non-European team guaranteed that a European side will win the World Cup. Come Sunday, the World Cup trophy will be lifted by Dutch, Spanish or German hands. Not bad for a continent lacking of any football talent.

So how did everyone get it so wrong?

For starters, everyone was far too concerned with trivial issues like continental origins and less concerned with the shape of teams heading into the World Cup. The teams that made it to the semifinals (and to a lesser extent, the quarterfinals) had something in common: they were all well organized and disciplined teams that did the little things necessary to win games.

Nothing has been more determinative of success at this World Cup quite like organization. So while you can point to Spain, Holland and Germany and notice that, yes, they are each from Europe, a close observer would also notice they have something else in common. The three teams still in the tournament all operate out of a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is marked by two defensive holding in central midfield, counter-attacking fullbacks, and a lone striker up front supported by a central attacking midfielder and two wingers. Maintaining possession and dominating the midfield are priorities, and the bulk of attacks are created in the outside areas of the attacking third.

While this brand of soccer can be hard on the eyes at times, its track record is hard to argue with. Of the sixteen games Germany, Holland and Spain played in so far at the World Cup, only two have been losses. Holland breezed past Slovakia in the round-of-16, squeezed by Brazil (who also operate a 4-2-3-1) in the quarterfinals, and survived a tight game against Uruguay in the semifinals. Spain and Germany each lost one game in the group stage, but rebounded and advanced to the semifinals. The winner of their game will face Holland in the finals.

One of the reasons the 4-2-3-1 works so well is that every player on the team is left with specific and easy to follow instructions. The center backs and defensive midfielders look to defend and rarely go forward, while the outside fullbacks advance up the pitch on overlapping or counterattacking situations. When the fullbacks do move forward, the wing midfielders are expected to track back and provide defensive cover. The central attacking midfielder has the most freedom on the pitch, and can support the midfielders in working the ball up the pitch or play off the central striker. The foundational idea, if there is one, is to limit your opponents scoring chances by denying them the ball.

This strategy was put on brilliant display during Germany's 4-0 trashing over Argentina. If talent alone wins soccer games, Argentina surely would have won. Their attacking combination of Gonzalo Hiquain, Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez is one of the most potent collections of goal scorers in the world, and their midfield of Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria and Maxi Rodriguez isn't bad either.

But against Germany they might as well have all been replaced with circus clowns. Germany dominated possession, knocking the ball around the midfield seemingly at will. On defense they shut down Messi and Tevez, which left Hiquain isolated and very alone (did he ever touch the ball?). The game was a perfect example of how the tournament has gone so far. Organization trumps individual talent and the 4-2-3-1 is all but invincible.

So remember, it's not Europe's World Cup (or Africa's or South America's, for that matter), the tournament really belongs to the 4-2-3-1.