Jim White

Hold on tight – this could one of football’s greatest nights

Jim White

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That’s it then: no work is going to be done after 5 o’clock today. No office will be occupied, every social event compromised, cinemas and theatres empty. Because this evening promises to offer up the best football entertainment in years, potentially up to five solid hours of mesmerising skill, application and endeavour, together with more plotlines than a Hollywood blockbuster. France versus Germany, followed by Brazil against Colombia: who needs a barbecue when that lot is going on?

For the Germans, every match at this World Cup seems to come with a subplot of revenge. Not on their part, they don’t seem to be worried by what anyone they face has been up to in the past. But every opponent they play here seems to be stirred up by memories of previous World Cup slights. First it was the Algerians, who played out of their skins in the last round in the attempt to avenge what happened in 1982 when their forebears were removed from the competition by German result arranging shenanigans. Now the Germans face France, who are equally driven by the desire to make amends for the last time the two countries met in a World Cup elimination round, when the only appropriate phrase was knock-out.

This was also in 1982 – what a loveable bunch those early eighties Germans were. What Harald Schumacher did to the Frenchman Patrick Battiston in the Spanish World Cup was utterly indefensible. The kung fu kick that took out the French full back when he was through on goal was one of the worst unpunished crimes in football history. Never mind three referees missing Luis Suarez chowing down on opponents’ shoulders, quite how the referee that day – a certain Dutchman called Charles Corver – managed to miss Schumacher’s assassination attempt, even going to the lengths of awarding the Germans a goal kick, is one of football’s enduring mysteries. There won’t be many neutrals watching who are not hoping to see the French restore some sort of karmic integrity this afternoon for that one.

Not that the French need too much in the way of spiritual assistance. They have increasingly looked a very good side at this tournament. Shorn of their most significant talent – Franck Ribery – they have done something not recently associated with French national sides: they have played like a team, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Plus, they have in their possession something unusual for this tournament: a pair of fully functioning centre backs. In Laurent Koscielny and especially the magnificent Raphael Varane they have the resources to contain even a side as threatening as this German operation. And in Paul Pogba and Yohan Cabaye, they have two defensive midfielders capable of nullifying even the most exalted of passing midfields. This really does represent the best opportunity for revenge: I suspect the French could do it tonight.

And the other quarter final is as equally mouth-watering a prospect. You really do begin to fear for the hosts when you hear Brazil’s coach suggesting that he already has one hand on the trophy. As statements of sporting over-confidence go, Big Phil Scolari saying that ahead of a tie against Colombia is right up there with the Scotland manager Ally McLeod’s infamous reply to the question posed to him as he flew to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. What will you do if you actually won the trophy he was asked. His reply was succinct: retain it, he said.

Scolari’s claim is all the more exaggerated given the nature of his side’s opponents today. Brazil struggled in the last round to dispose of Chile, ultimately requiring penalties to do so. Colombia have every asset that made the Chileans such a challenge – work rate, desire, team spirit. In addition they also have the player of the tournament so far in James Rodriguez, a forward whose value has, over the last month, gone through the kind of dizzying inflation more usually associated with the national economy in these parts. Rodriguez appears to have everything required to become the biggest global star in the game: skill, temperament, good looks, charm. He is also blessed with an insatiable hunger to achieve. And for Colombia there could be no greater achievement than eliminating the hosts and favourites tonight.

France and Colombia: they certainly weren’t among most people’s predictions to be amongst those making up the semi-finalists here. For the continued success of the tournament among its hosts, it is probably best if they don’t progress. But for the rest of us, how intriguing would that be. So intriguing, there can be nothing better this evening than watching them in the attempt. And if they both fail, well it is not as if they would be losing to teams we would not wish to watch again.

That is why this World Cup has been such a joy: it doesn’t matter who is playing, you just can’t take your eyes off the action for a moment. Certainly not this evening.

Jim White (on Twitter: @jimw1)

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