After all the hurly-burly at this tropical festival of feet, the four contenders who still are standing come from the small group of savvy and stubborn guests who’ve customarily found ways to stay at the party after everyone else has been sent home.
Brazil, Germany, Argentina, and the Netherlands have won 10 World Cups among them and reached the semifinals a combined 30 times previously. Had any of them not managed that much below the equator this time, their supporters would have believed that the planet had turned upside down on them.
“At least we lived up to the minimum objective,” declared Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella after the Albiceleste held off Belgium to reach the final four for the first time since 1990, when Diego Maradona still was on the ball.
Even getting here was an enormous struggle for all four survivors. Argentina, which has won all five of its matches by one goal, had to go down to the final two minutes of overtime to beat the Swiss in the second round. The Germans needed two overtime goals to get past Algeria. The Brazilians had to go to a shootout with Chile. And the Dutch had two near-death experiences, trailing Mexico with two minutes on the clock in the round of 16 and slipping past Costa Rica in a shootout after manager Louis van Gaal gambled and brought goalkeeper Tim Krul off the bench to trash-talk the Ticos into misfiring.
Still, the four teams that figured to get this far are set up for a brace of classic semis. The Netherlands and Argentina, who’ll meet Wednesday in Sao Paulo, are facing each other for the fifth time in Cup play. The Dutch won the first meeting in 1974 when Johan Cruyff and his Clockwork Orange colleagues hung up four goals. Argentina took the 1978 final on home turf with two overtime tallies. The Dutch prevailed in the 1998 quarters on Dennis Bergkamp’s last-minute strike. And the squads played to a scoreless draw in their group finale in 2006.
For the Albiceleste, which hasn’t allowed a goal in the knockout stage, this is a priceless chance to claim the Cup for the first time since 1986.
“We must hold onto the dream,” said midfielder Javier Mascherano, “because we have taken Argentina to a place it has not been for a long time.”
The Dutch, of course, never have been at the top of the podium, losing three finals including the 2010 edition to the Spaniards, whom they booted halfway to Valencia in their opening meeting this time.
“We’re not a great team,” conceded van Gaal, “but a team that’s difficult to play against.”
While Argentina has blanked three of its opponents, it hasn’t had to deal with an attack like the Dutch “gouden driehoek’’ (golden triangle) of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, and Wesley Sneijder, who’ve combined for seven goals. Nor have the Oranje faced a wizard like Lionel Messi, the Albiceleste’s mainspring who’ll be even more on the spot with midfielder Angel di Maria sidelined.
What may well result is a standoff that goes down to the wire and beyond. The Dutch already have been through that wringer twice in this tournament and if the proceedings come down to a shootout they’ve got more gunners lined up than do the Argentines. They’ve also got Krul, whose job evidently is to sit for two hours and stand tall (and talk fast) for two minutes.
The Brazilians won’t be rolling the dice that way if it comes down to PKs against the Germans. They’re only still in the tournament because keeper Julio Cesar denied a couple of Chileans in the second round and they’ll be playing with two huge holes in their lineup. Neymar, who was Brazil’s go-to guy, was put out of commission with a fractured vertebra when Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zuniga put a knee into his back.
“We have lost the one player we did not want to lose,” mourned coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.
And captain Thiago Silva will be sitting out a yellow-card suspension.
“Without Neymar they will spread their match on many shoulders,” predicted German keeper Manuel Neuer, whose mates meet the Selecao in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday. “Until now everything was focused on him. He is the star. Now, the team is the star.”
This team, though, isn’t the Selecao of the jogo bonito, all invention and insouciance. This Brazil squad bangs and buffets as though it’s playing in a back alley.
“The Brazilians here aren’t the magicians of old,” remarked German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. “The team has changed and so has their playing style.”
After the close call with Chile, Scolari observed that his men were being much too gracious hosts.
“We’re being too nice and too cordial with our opponents,” he said.
The Germans aren’t much with the social niceties either, and they’re expecting a death match with the Brazilians, whom they’ve mastered only four times in their 21 meetings.
Only one of them came in the Cup, though, when Ronaldo dismantled the Mannschaft in the 2002 final in Yokohama. That was the Selecao’s last triumph, which is one more than Germany has enjoyed as a reunited country. The Brazilians may already have five in their trophy case but they’re not going to give their Teutonic guests a golden souvenir.