Same old, same old: Europe wins World Cup

Same old, same old. The World Cup champions will be European.

Either Dutch, Spanish or German, to be precise.

Hang on a second, the old continent hogging the summit of world

football, haven’t we seen that before?

Well, yes. Four years ago, in fact. Remember Italy winning and

the head-butt that rocked the world by French captain Zinedine

Zidane?

The truth is, we shouldn’t be surprised. Four weeks and 61

matches into the first World Cup in Africa – there’s just one

semifinal, Sunday’s final and the third-place game still to play –

have reaffirmed a cold, hard fact: The sport’s center of gravity is

still, and perhaps more than ever, in Europe.

Africa proved at this World Cup that it is more than capable of

hosting the biggest single event in sport, but that it also is

nowhere close to winning it. Ghana was the only country to make a

real impression and even it got no further than the quarterfinals.

Africa has fine players, competing across Europe in some of the

biggest clubs. It also has passion, as evidenced by the way the

continent swung behind the Ghanaians after the other five African

sides failed to get out of the group stage. But Africa doesn’t have

the decades of experience, the coaching expertise, and the wealth

that make Europe’s giants so strong.

For a while at this World Cup of relatively few goals but also

genuine upsets, South America strung us along with the illusion

that it would be the dominant force. But that, too, wasn’t to be.

Four of the eight quarterfinalists were South American. None will

be in the final. Thank you, Brazil for letting someone else win for

a change. The five-time champions were nowhere near their dancing,

awesome best in South Africa. The Brazilians are organizing the

next World Cup and must regroup, perhaps unearth a new Pele, if

they want to win it and add a sixth gold star to their bright

yellow jerseys.

Thanks, too, to Argentina for a bundle of goals and for lighting

up the World Cup with the passion and quirkiness of Diego Maradona,

Argentina’s greatest player, who discovered that coaching wasn’t so

easy. His philosophy of swashbuckling attacking football was the

necessary antidote to the dull defensive fare served by teams so

unambitious that we’ve already forgotten them.

And gracias Uruguay, for giving the World Cup its pantomime

villain, Luis Suarez. At the very end of an absorbing quarterfinal,

he illegally used his hands to block what would have been a

match-winning goal for Ghana. But that cheat also proved to be a

Pyhrric victory for Uruguay. As punishment, football governing body

FIFA made him sit out Tuesday’s semifinal against the Netherlands

at Cape Town’s ghostly white and brand new Green Point Stadium.

Deprived of Suarez’s goal-scoring talents, Uruguay never looked

likely to win. There was a measure of poetic justice for Ghana and

Africa in the scoreline – Netherlands 3, Uruguay 2.

The Dutch captain, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, lit up the match

with a moment of beauty. His goal after 18 minutes of constricted

and flat football – neither side wanted to make a mistake –

whooshed into the top corner of Uruguay’s net. He thwacked the ball

from 36 meters (yards) out, top speed: 109 kilometers (67 miles)

per hour.

So often at this World Cup similar shots have zoomed

frustratingly over the crossbar. Players have blamed their lack of

control on the Jabulani ball, said by some to be too fast and too

light, and the high altitude of some of the stadiums, where shots

cut quicker through the thin air. Maybe Cape Town’s muggy, denser

sea air was a factor in van Bronckhorst finding the back of the net

so sweetly against Uruguay. Of all the goals at this World Cup,

only the very first of the tournament was better. Siphiwe

Tshabalala’s shot on the run for South Africa was both athletic and

the perfect start.

The Netherlands will play either Spain or the most impressive

side of the tournament, Germany, in Sunday’s final at the cooking

pot-shaped Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg.

Germany’s young side has played with such verve and teamwork

that it is the favorite. But Spain is the European champion and,

unlike three-time champion Germany, has never won a World Cup. Its

talented team of players, many from Spanish champion Barcelona, has

not been as impressive as was expected, but could make amends now

when it counts.

The Dutch have reached the final playing not the prettiest

football, but perhaps the most pragmatic. Defend well. Score goals.

They have won all six of their matches in South Africa. Like the

Spanish, they have yet to win a World Cup.

And while no European side has ever won the cup outside of

Europe, that will change Sunday.

So in the end, it won’t be same old, same old, after all.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org