on soccer

Surviving and advancing no easy task at this World Cup

Lionel Messi gives Argentina a big advantage over the competiton.
Darren Staples/REUTERS
Lionel Messi gives Argentina a big advantage over the competiton.

America’s Team still wears red, white, and blue. It just happens to come from Central America. The yanquis may have departed the World Cup but the Costa Ricans have carried the regional banner into the quarterfinals as the most unlikely survivor of what has been a feverish and fascinating tournament south of the equator.

“Football is about moments,” said defender Giancarlo Gonzalez, whose Tico teammates take on the Netherlands on Saturday in Salvador, Brazil. “And we don’t know if we will ever again have a chance like this one.”

Costa Rica, which won its group by smothering Uruguay, Italy, and England and then banished Greece on penalties after conceding a 91st-minute equalizer, is in the quarters for the first time. So is Colombia, which faces Brazil on Friday in Fortaleza. And the Belgians, who beat the Americans on two overtime goals, haven’t made it this far since they finished fourth in 1986.


Never have the final eight had to come so close to extinction to get here. While all of the group winners went through for the first time, five of them had to go to overtime and two to a shootout. The Brazilians, who came in as clear favorites to win a sixth title, were pushed to the brink by the Chileans and were saved by keeper Julio Cesar’s magical mitts and some vertical woodwork.

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Argentina needed a bit of 118th minute wizardry from Lionel Messi to get past the Swiss. The Germans required two overtime goals to rid themselves of Algeria. And the Dutch, all but dead as the end of regulation approached, scored twice to get past the Mexicans.

“With three or four minutes to go, we’re out of the tournament,” conceded Arjen Robben, whose controversial dive in the box set up teammate Klaas-Jan “The Hunter’’ Huntelaar’s decisive penalty kick in the 94th.

The French, who didn’t score until the 79th, weren’t assured of advancing until the Nigerians scored on themselves in the 92d. Only Colombia, which is making its first Cup appearance since 1998, went through without undue trial and torment.

Los Cafeteros, who knocked out the toothless Uruguayans after Luis Sanchez was kicked out of the tournament for his unauthorized Italian antipasto, are relishing their unfamiliar status. “It will be something extraordinary for us to play,” says midfielder James Rodriguez, whose five goals have him in the lead for the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer.


And it will be even more extraordinary for them to prevail. Brazil has won all but two of its 25 meetings with Colombia but if it loses its first Cup encounter, the citizenry will be thrown into its deepest depression since the Selecao lost the 1950 finale at home to Uruguay. “We are not necessarily here to produce a spectacle,” said superstar Neymar, whose countrymen have been bemoaning the absence of their team’s traditional ‘jogo bonito,’ its beautiful game.

Winning the Cup at home has become decidedly more difficult — since 1978 only the French have managed it and Les Bleus have been mercurial even by Gallic standards over the past couple of decades. They missed the Cup in 1994, won it in 1998, went three-and-out in 2002, lost the 2006 final on penalty kicks, and went three-and-out again in 2010.

Now the French renaissance is inspiring fantasies of another crown. “Everyone can dream, including me, but I’m a pragmatist and a realist,” said coach Didier Deschamps, who captained the squad that claimed the title 16 years ago. “Friday is the only day that counts.”

This will be the fourth Cup meeting between the French and Germans but the first since Deutschland was reunited. For Les Bleus the last two, each in the semifinals, were agonizing. In 1982 in Seville, when German keeper Harald Schumacher’s shocking assault on Patrick Battiston (broken jaw, lost teeth) went uncarded, France squandered a two-goal lead in overtime and lost in a shootout. In 1986 in Guadalajara, the French conceded a goal in the ninth minute, tried valiantly to equalize, then were finished off by Rudi Voeller’s coup de grace in the 89th.

Les Bleus have had much the better of their eastern neighbors in recent years, going 5-1-1 in their last seven encounters, and they’ve had a less demanding route so far. The Mannschaft, which appeared a world-beater in its opening 4-0 vivisection of Portugal, hasn’t looked the same since. “That was the worst performance for years,” former captain Michael Ballack declared after the Germans struggled against the Algerians.


The favorites indeed have been underperforming. Argentina, which too often has looked to Messi as a savior, will have trouble cracking a Belgian team that has yielded just one goal (Julian Green’s) from the run of play. “It is a big game for our generation,” said Eden Hazard, whose Red Devil predecessors were beaten by Diego Maradona in the 1986 semis. “We can make history.”

So can the Ticos, who’ve already vanquished a trio of former champions. “We will give our lives,” vowed goalkeeper Keylor Navas, “in one of the most beautiful games of our lives.”

John Powers can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jpowiz.