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September 23, 2014

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Friday, July 4, 2014

The unpredictable road to Rio de Janeiro

The final of the World Cup is to be staged at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
By David Smith
For the Herald

Only two countries will make it to the Maracanã for the World Cup final

Rio de Janeiro — So we have reached the last eight at the World Cup but the road to Rio and the final looks so unpredictable after the cliffhangers of the last few days.

Yes, Brazil and Argentina, Germany and Holland, perennial rivals all and long accustomed to reaching this far, have come through. But only a brave commentator would predict that they will give us semi-finals of the titans: Brazil versus Germany in Belo Horizonte, Argentina versus Holland in Sao Paulo.

The last week has reinforced the notion that this has been a World Cup not just of high quality, exceptional finishing and genuine contests, but also a tournament that is challenging the age-old pecking order of the World game. The game, at the highest level, is still Europe versus Latin America, Africa and Asia captivating to watch yet prone to careless mistakes that cost dearly. But new players have come to the table, witness Colombia, Costa Rica, Belgium. And think how close Mexico, Switzerland, even Algeria came to scoring the big upset.

So Brazil won, but survived is the better word, as Chile pushed the hosts to extra time, and penalties, a fretful display that prompted more questions than answers about Neymar and Co. The Brazil camp is patently stressed, carrying so many hopes, so many expectations.

Likewise, Germany defeated the last African standard-bearer, Algeria, yet how relieved the Germans were to knock in a winner in the dying minutes of extra time. Their coach, Joachim Löw, remains committed to playing his captain Philip Lahm in midfield, when most of his stars want Lahm in his customary role at the back.

Holland rode their luck, frankly, all the way against a plucky Mexico side that at last showed their mettle at a World Cup, and only Arjen Robben’s gamesmanship earned them the late, late penalty that took them on to face Costa Rica.

The Ticos, far from being a minnow, reminded us all how the hierarchy is changing, as they first won a Group of Death featuring Uruguay, Italy and England, then dispatched the veteran war-horses of Greece in a brutal encounter that was low on good soccer, high on drama.

I confess. By the end, I simply wanted the Greeks to lose, their cynical use of the elbow in the back, the theatrical dive and their denunciation of the referee for not giving Costa Rica more cards (when he’d already sent off one Tico). It struck me as testament to the old US sporting adage about “winning, it’s not everything, it’s the only thing.” If our Soccer World is changing, and bringing us emerging countries, then give me the highly-talented Bryan Ruiz and Cristian Bolaños of Costa Rica, rather than the blatant cynicism of Messrs Karagounis and Samaras of Greece.

And what to say of Argentina ? Well, seen from the stands at Arena Corinthians on Tuesday, Argentina remain a work in progress, sometimes painfully so. One goal was always going to settle a tense battle with Switzerland. And a disciplined Swiss side, humiliated in the group stage by France lest we forget, had the chances to win it before Ángel Di María saved Alex Sabella’s team.

When Leo Messi leads, and has the room to do so, Argentina are world-beaters. Yet double-marked, and forced to play deep in search of the ball and freedom, Messi needs much more of a supporting cast up front than he has with Gonzalo Higuaín and Enrique Lavezzi, both struggling to find form. The health of Sergio “Kun” Agüero seems critical to Argentina’s prospects.

Because next up for Argentina comes a very dangerous outsider, Belgium. Once in a generation, the Belgians produce a team that can compete with the best, and this is that team. With the giant Thibaut Courtois in goal, the elegant Vincent Kompany at the heart of defence, the creative Eden Hazard in midfield, and Romelu Lukaku partnering Kevin Mirallas up front, the spine of the Belgian side is formidable. Argentina, beware in Brasilia on Saturday.

In Rio, we will see a battle for the history books, France versus Germany. Old enemies, now the best of friends holding together the new Europe, but on the pitch memories are long, especially of matches in Latin America — not least of the no-holds barred encounter in Spain in 1982, when the great French team of Michel Platini was outmuscled by Karl-Heinz Rumenigge’s Germany in a semi-final which left lasting battle scars.

Germany will need every ounce of Bastian Schweinsteiger’s tenacity, Mesut Özil’s guile and Thomas Müller’s clinical finishing to pass their French test in the Maracana.

Brazil take on Colombia, another of the “dark” horses who look entirely at home in this exalted company. All who saw James Rodríguez score one of the goals of the tournament against Uruguay last Saturday know that he’s filling the void left by Falcao’s absence through injury, and the intuitive partnership he has with Freddy Guarín makes Colombia a potential nightmare for Brazil.

Because Brazil, like Argentina, rely so heavily on one player. Neymar has had a strong tournament so far, but the burden is extraordinary in a team bereft of a world-class playmaker. Remember Pele had Garrincha, Jairzinho, Gerson, Carlos Alberto. If the old world order is in for a shock, it could come here.

I will keep a special eye on Holland versus Costa Rica. Our family lost its patriarch last weekend, a larger-than-life figure in the Dutch-Argentine community, Frans Ruseler, and I rushed back just in time for the funeral of my beloved father-in-law, carrying his Holland team shirt to the wake in Buenos Aires. When we watched Holland snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, we concluded someone up there liked Frans.

In theory, Costa Rica should not be a problem for the likes of Robben, Van Persie, Snejder. But that’s the special quality of this World Cup. It has delivered some superb soccer, thrilling entertainment, laced with surprises and the unexpected.

And to think the stage is set necessarily for the age-old soccer powers of Latin America and Europe, with an Argentina v Germany final perhaps.

Well, much as it may happen and much as it would be mouth-watering, that forecast runs the risk of ignoring the lessons of the past three weeks. The traditional soccer powers can take nothing for granted any more.

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