Midfield General

Latin America Leads the Way

Africa was supposed to be the next hotbed of world soccer. It’s not.

Whether it's a World Cup year or not, everybody knows where to find the world's best soccer players: Brazil. But during this tournament, some of Brazil's less-fancied neighbors in the Western Hemisphere are also getting into the act. Colombians, Costa Ricans, Ecuadoreans, and Mexicans are all impressing the pro scouts. The question is, can these fresh talents from the Americas really cut it in Europe's top leagues?

So far this has been Latin America's World Cup, with seven of the nine teams progressing to the knockout stages. That's more than Europe managed from their 13 representatives in Brazil. As clubs run through their talent assessments, don't be surprised if it means further cherry-picking from the Americas.

Back in 2002 Africa was seen as soccer's great untapped resource. Senegal's debut appearance at the World Cup in 2002 compelled Liverpool to spend £15 million on El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao. In 2010 it was tiny Slovenia attracting attention, having qualified for a second World Cup in eight years. "There's a lot of trend scouting in football, now Slovenia are in fashion," wrote respected scout Tor-Kristian Karlsen in his Calcio Italia column the following year.

The evidence suggests Latin America can expect to be the focus for soccer's money men in 2014. Uruguay continues to punch above its weight despite a population of a little under four million people, while Costa Rica topped a group that included three former champions.

While the global icons such as Lionel Messi and Neymar have delivered, new talents have announced themselves too. Ecuador's Mexico-based striker Enner Valencia has scored three goals, Joel Campbell set the tone for Costa Rica in its opening win over Uruguay, and young Colombian playmaker James Rodríguez has arguably shone brightest of all: three goals and two assists in just two and a half matches. With many World Cup participants still playing domestically, their teams' successes reflect well on the talent still in the Americas, not just those who've sought their fortunes in Europe.

Few expected such an impact. This is the first World Cup in Latin America since 1986 and the first in South America since 1978. Argentina won both of those, but with widespread globalization since then the advantage of teams from the Americas might have been overstated. Nevertheless, though almost 5,000 miles separate Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, Latin American sides have adapted better. By contrast, no Asian teams made it through, and England, Spain, and Italy exited together in the group stage for the first time since 1974.

Despite that failure, those last three countries remain the top three markets for club soccer. Though the Latin American talent pool may be vast, the question of adaptability in the other direction will be the main concern for players. World Cup success doesn't guarantee consistent levels of performance over an exhausting European season.

Indeed, the record on this point is spotty at best. Chile has impressed at the World Cup, but Jean Beausejour and Gary Medel have suffered relegations from English football's Premier League. Their teammate Gonzalo Jara already played second-tier soccer in England and is now without a club. Ecuador's Antonio Valencia is one of the most polarizing figures at Manchester United. Even Guillermo Ochoa, the Mexican goalkeeper who so spectacularly shut out Brazil, was relegated from the French top bracket with Ajaccio last term.

As a result, any conclusions from a month-long festival of futebol or fútbol must come with caveats. But so far, a clear message is emerging: Just as the Amazon rainforests are the Earth's lungs, Latin America continues to breathe new life into the global game.

Clive Rose / Michael Steele / Warren Little / Getty Images Sport

Midfield General

T-Rex vs. Navy SEAL

Why innovation-driven Chile might be just the team to beat old-school Brazil.

Brazil is very good at soccer. These days, so is Chile. As it happens, Chile is also very good at a lot of other stuff that Brazil struggles to master. It may be smaller, but Chile is the country with its eyes on the future, not the past. And this is true in soccer as well.

Brazil is the overwhelming favorite to win the World Cup. They've triumphed five times already, their players are prized the world over, and they're playing at home. Soccer may have been born in the British Isles, but it came of age in Brazil. So the story goes.

But Brazil hasn't won the World Cup since 2002, which was also the last time its team made the final. A lot has changed since then. Players have come and gone, but there has been no one with the primacy of a Ronaldo or a Pelé. Neymar is clearly destined for greatness, but he's still a young and mercurial talent. The team around him seems to go grimly through the motions, waiting for him to score.

The Brazilian economy has fallen into a similar tedium. After growing by 7.5 percent in 2010, thanks in part to a flood of foreign capital fleeing the crisis in traditional markets, it expanded by a total of just 6.2 percent over the next three years. For a country with millions of young people entering the labor force each year, this is not good news.

The old ways are holding Brazil back: According to the World Bank, corruption is just as pervasive as it was more than a decade ago, well before Brazil's recent growth spurt. The tax system is just as difficult to navigate, requiring a whopping 2,600 hours of work annually for businesses. In the absence of reforms, only the discovery of offshore oil -- a natural resource whose appearance is hardly reliable, like Neymar's ability on the field -- offers hope of another boom.

Chile is the polar opposite. With less than a tenth of Brazil's population, its talent comes in a smaller package. (In fact, it also has the shortest team at the World Cup.) But it's a package that has been carefully crafted for maximum effectiveness. Chile routinely tops South America in rankings of economic competitiveness and business climate, even finishing above some Western European giants. Net inflows of foreign direct investment average around 10 percent of gross domestic product, three times the rate for Brazil. And Chile is an economy on the move, ranking 46th in the Cornell-INSEAD-WIPO Global Innovation Index to Brazil's 64th.

Chile's soccer has lately been innovative as well. Starting with the hiring in 2007 of Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, one of the sport's most brilliant iconoclasts -- even the United States tried to sign him, according to media reports -- the team sought the greatest leverage for its limited talent pool. Bielsa imposed his favored 3-3-1-3 formation, an unusual setup that required a passel of pacy attackers and exceptionally flexible defenders. Bielsa may have left the team in 2011 for Athletic Bilbao in Spain, but Jorge Sampaoli, Chile's latest Argentine coach, says he idolizes Bielsa and is imposing an evolution of his countryman's system in Brazil. The 3-3-1-3 formation remains, but perhaps with more emphasis on playmaking behind the three forwards.

Meanwhile, Brazil is stuck in the past. Luiz Felipe Scolari led Brazil to its victory in 2002 but has only won the lopsided Uzbek league, a Brazilian cup, and last year's Confederations Cup since then. He's a good motivator and a decent tactician, but he's no innovator. In the World Cup this year, Scolari has used a standard 4-2-3-1 formation, with Brazil's traditional attacking fullbacks. For creativity, he relies on his players. But only Neymar and Oscar have shown much trace of Brazil's vaunted improvisational style.

Scolari's strategy has worked before, of course. But if any team can find a way to crack the Brazilian system using sheer tactical intelligence, it's Chile. Brazil is a dinosaur. A big, scary dinosaur, to be sure -- but the only question is how long it can last before extinction.

Dave Sandford / Getty Images Sport