Four weeks ago this was the African World Cup. Not only was it being held on African soil for the first time, but six of the 32 competing teams belonged to that continent.
The dream lingered all the way to the quarterfinal at Soccer City last Friday in which Ghana, the last African survivors, went out in a blaze of controversy and anguish.
They were put out by Uruguay, one of the five representatives of a continent that was by then assumed to have taken control of the tournament. South America had sent only five teams, but four of them survived into the last eight, and two in particular — Brazil and Argentina — were being widely tipped to go all the way.
South Americans fade
That notion in turn died in the space of two days last week-end, when all but the Uruguayans were removed from the competition.
And on Tuesday night they, too, were eliminated, leaving the way clear for the teams from the continent that has claimed the title nine times in 18 editions of the World Cup.
Sunday night's all-European final will be the eighth in the history of the tournament and follows on from the meeting of Italy and France in Berlin four years ago, giving us the first back-to-back Europe-only finals since Italy beat first Czechoslovakia and then Hungary in the second and third editions of the World Cup, in 1934 and 1938.
It will also be the first meeting of its kind to take place outside Europe, guaranteeing that it will also be the first time a European team has won the title on another continent.
That is likely to seem a significant achievement to everyone but Brazil, whose players managed to triumph on their travels to Europe (Sweden 1958) and Asia (Japan and South Korea 2002) as well as Central and North America (Mexico 1970 and the United States 1994), and stopped making a fuss about it quite a while ago.
Not surprisingly, given the situation only a week ago, a sense of triumphalism has already started to make its presence felt, not least in the pronouncements of Michel Platini, the UEFA President. Europe's three semifinalists this year, he pointed out, had something in common.
“They are the three nations who have won the greatest number of youth tournaments in the last four years,” he said. “Can all of this be put down to mere good luck? I don't think so. We are witnessing a triumph for technical education programmes, sound management and good governance.
“Nothing could be more pleasing than this state of affairs. Three teams with youth and freshness at their heart, deploying playing systems that leave considerable room for creativity: Germany, winners of the 2009 European Under-21 Championship,
Holland, who won the previous Under-21 title in 2007, and Spain, successive winners on four occasions of UEFA's Maurice Burlaz Trophy, awarded to the European association with the best results in UEFA's youth competitions.
It is the long-term reward for three associations who have invested in education and training.”
The South American — and African — countries could reply that it is all very well for Platini to pat himself and his members on the back, but it is their players who have played a major role in building the popularity of the big European leagues, and thus enabling the investment in youth development programmes.
The most promising Brazilian, Argentinean, Ghanaian, Nigerian and Ivorian players are snapped up in their teens, and in the case of those who make it in Europe the financial recompense to their originating clubs and academies bears no relationship to their eventual value.
As we saw in this year's European Cup, and are now seeing in the World Cup, football is going through a phase in which the science of coaching has the upper hand over the technical skill of individual players.
That emphasis gives an advantage to the rich European clubs, and by extension to their national teams, who benefit most immediately from the rising levels of tactical sophistication.
Both this year's finalists have found ways, albeit rather different ones, of integrating talented individuals into carefully planned formations and patterns of play.
Although Dunga and Diego Maradona may not agree, teaching your players where to go and what to do when the opponent has the ball is not necessarily the enemy of entertainment.
It would certainly be a good thing, nevertheless, if Sunday's match were to contain flashes of individual brilliance and enough thrills to silence the complaints of those who feel that an all-European final necessarily lacks the contrasts and charisma essential to the complete World Cup experience. — © Guardian News and Media 2010