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Tuesday, June 29, 2010
So many highs, so few lows

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

PRETORIA, South Africa -- As we edge toward the World Cup quarterfinals, now seems like a perfect time to take a breath, put down our vuvuzelas and discuss what we've seen so far in this tournament.

It certainly hasn't lacked in excitement, drama or foolishness. So here's a look at the best and worst stories so far of the World Cup.

THE BEST

South American dominance: Brazil and Argentina are the two heavyweights, but this continent has shown that its soccer excellence extends far beyond those two countries. Five of the final 16 teams were from South America, including pleasant surprises such as Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile. And with Paraguay punching its ticket to the quarterfinals, that means that, for the first time ever, four of the final eight teams are from South America. If the South Americans continue to own this tournament, we could be headed for an all-South American final. Last time that happened, the hottest technology item around was Sputnik.

Asian emergence: The future looks bright for Japan and South Korea, which both advanced past the group stage. Japan's ascension was truly stunning when you consider that this team seemed headed for disaster before the World Cup -- so much so that manager Takeshi Okada offered to resign as a way of apologizing for the team's poor performance in friendly matches heading into the World Cup. The Japanese acquitted themselves with their second overall appearance in the knockout stage, and South Korea continued to establish itself as the most powerful Asian team. South Korea is one of just six nations to qualify for the past seven World Cups (including 2010), and it took a gritty effort from Uruguay to oust the South Koreans from the round of 16. And although North Korea was outscored 12-1 in the group stage -- including a 7-0 stomping by Portugal -- this was the North Koreans' first appearance in the World Cup since 1966. Baby steps.

Ghana: I know Ghana's success came at the expense of the United States, but you'd have to be pretty coldhearted not to be moved by its appearance in the quarters against Uruguay. If the Black Stars beat Uruguay, it will be the first time an African team has reached the semifinals. And with this being the first time the World Cup is being played on African soil, having an African team make this deep a tournament run is special.

Diego Maradona: He is the most interesting man at the World Cup. Bold and inappropriate, he's every journalist's dream. One of the many Maradona gems is when he was asked by reporters whether he allowed his players to have sex at the World Cup. "Of course, as long as the women do all the work," Maradona responded. He also has promised to run naked in the streets of Buenos Aires if Argentina wins the World Cup. Hope it's not a chilly day.

Officiating: I'm sure you're wondering how the porous officiating could make a best-of list. Some of the calls truly have been abysmal -- from the disallowed goal in the U.S.-Algeria game to the overlooked goal in the England-Germany match -- but the end result is that the outrage seems to have shamed FIFA president Sepp Blatter into considering the use of video replay.

South Africa, as a country, reintroduces itself to the world: The South Africans have put on a beautiful World Cup. Of course, any international event is bound to have its share of problems, but the South Africans have proved they have the infrastructure and resources to host events of this magnitude. Expect this country to be a major player in bidding for the 2020 Olympics.

THE WORST

The death of Nelson Mandela's great-granddaughter: The World Cup got off to a sad start when Mandela's 13-year-old great-granddaughter, Zenani, was killed in a car crash on the way home from a pre-World Cup concert. Mandela, who is 91, understandably canceled his plans to attend the World Cup opener, but there are reports Mandela might make an appearance at the World Cup's closing ceremonies. If he does, it will supply a perfect ending to a magnificent event.

France, Italy and England -- the downfall of a disastrous, dramatic trio: These three nations were easily the most disappointing of all the World Cup teams. France bowed out chaotically, not only playing poorly but refusing to practice after Nicolas Anelka was sent home. And since Les Bleus' ouster, the French government has launched a full-scale investigation into the team's World Cup unraveling, making you wonder whether Kenneth Starr is running the country instead of President Nicolas Sarkozy. Italy, the reigning world champion, finished last in its group. And not only did England slink its way out of South Africa with just three goals to its credit but star Wayne Rooney performed the worst of any World Cup star. Rooney didn't score a single goal and managed just 13 shots in four games.

Officiating blunders: Although some good might come out of the referees' errors, bad officiating shouldn't be this prolific on a stage this big. FIFA's bumbling response to it was embarrassing, and if it weren't for public pressure, FIFA would keep things status quo. A failure on numerous levels.

The verbal and physical assaults directed toward the media: It's not unusual for the media to have confrontations with their sources, but Algeria's Rafik Saifi severely crossed the line when, witnesses say, the substitute slapped Algerian female sports journalist Asma Halimi after the United States' 1-0 victory. Also, Slovakian coach Vladimir Weiss threatened to beat up a reporter who questioned his strategy. I know the media often make people angry, but this behavior is ugly and unprofessional.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.