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Latin America Leads the Way

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

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

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.

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