By their elevated standards, Germany and – despite winning all their matches - Belgium toiled through their groups, while Greece and Switzerland were somewhat fortunate to escape theirs; only the Netherlands and France looked anything like convincing.
Meanwhile, Latin American nations were excelling. Costa Rica were the surprise package, Colombia and Chile the great entertainers, Mexico looked an enticing proposition for a long run into the tournament, and of course hosts Brazil and Lionel Messi’s Argentina remained favourites, despite looking like they were squeezing out victories. The USA were exhibiting their never-say-die spirit, while Nigeria and Algeria flew the flag for Africa with some spirited performances.
Was it the climate, which ranged from extreme humidity (Manaus), searing heat (Recife) to cold and rainy (Porto Alegre)? Certainly some players were struggling with the former two, while transitioning to cooler climes like Porto Alegre saw several players (such as Germany’s Mats Hummels) fall sick.
Maybe it was the travel, with Brazil the size of a small continent meaning players would fly up to five hours to get between games? Latin American sides are accustomed to this, goes the logic, while their possession-heavy styles of play corroborated better with the fatigue than European sides’ zippier fashion (Spain not included).[READ ALL OF REDA'S WORLD CUP BLOGS]
But here we are, at the quarter-finals, and four of the eight teams are European. Granted, a few big guns are missing, but that Barcelona-heavy Spain side had run out of puff some time ago, and Belgium were everyone’s dark horses anyway. And despite being less than convincing in their group, they won all their matches and managed to withstand a trademark US barrage to reach the quarters.
Indeed, after all that hand-wringing about this being the Latin World Cup (I was as guilty as any on this), there is one more European side than 2010, which boasted the same number of LatAm teams in the quarters; Ghana was the odd one out then. And at times it was bloody freezing then, being at the height of the South African winter.
Tournament football is a funny old game. Most – if not all – of the teams are at an exceptionally high level, and the margins between victory and defeat are exceptionally narrow. Even the sides with the best players can toil against those made up of journeymen pros and youngsters, such as Costa Rica, Greece, Switzerland and the USA – team spirit counts for a lot in cup competitions, when one result, one goal, one save, one dive, is often all that it takes to send a team through or home.[WHY MESSI MUST SURPASS MARADONA]
What cannot be denied is that this has been an exceptional tournament, with the exception of Cameroon’s disastrous, contemptible showing – even England’s two defeats were narrow and hugely entertaining for the neutral, and England are just short of a joke.
It’s a crying shame that the USA, Algeria and Switzerland could not progress given the nature of their second-round showings; ultimately Belgium, Germany and Argentina were just too experienced, too canny to yield.
Ultimately the teams who have gone through are those with the best players (Argentina, Germany, Brazil and Belgium, in that order) and those with the best coaches (Netherlands, France and Colombia, in no particular order); there is a wild-card in Costa Rica, who face the Dutch, but there’s always one.
The cookie of the draw has crumbled such that there will be at least one European team in the last four, with France facing Germany on July 4, probably two, with the Dutch expected to see off Costa Rica (but don’t count on it), and possibly three, with Argentina toiling against the resilient Swiss, who lack the means of Belgium.
Not bad, given the old continent’s death was signalled even before the tournament had kicked off what seems like yesterday.
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