It certainly does not seem like a month has passed since the curtain was raised in Sao Paulo to herald the beginning of 2014 FIFA World Cup. Thankfully, the football since then has been far more impressive than J-Lo and Pitbull’s opening act.
158 goals later, there are four countries remaining, daring to dream that it is their destiny to raise aloft the Silvio Gazzaniga commissioned trophy at the footballing Mecca that is Rio’s magnificent Maracana Stadium. Four countries remain, teams with intriguing stories and subplots that have developed over the last month, and before.
Firstly, we look at the tale of the hosts and the country synonymous with the World Cup, Brazil. They proudly bear five stars above the crest on their shirts – one for each occasion they triumphed above all other nations. They earned the right to retain the first World Cup, the Jules Rimet Trophy, and names like Garrincha, Pele, Romario and (the real) Ronaldo are etched in its glorious folklore.
Yet it seemed possible at one stage the tournament may not even proceed due to apparent poor planning, the tragic deaths of stadium workers, and the national anger among many that the countries hospitals, schooling and infrastructure deserved investment rather than a football competition, however prestigious it may be.
The tournament did proceed whether right or wrong, and the on the field of play at least, The Samba Boys have enjoyed a unity and support that is reserved for the hosts alone. Led by Neymar Jr. in the iconic number ten shirt, Brazil have battled to a semi-final berth having initially topped their group and coming through testing encounters particularly with Chile, and Colombia. However, it has been far from an exhibition of football, with the odd goal from Neymar and David Luiz’s exquisite free kick the notable exceptions.
The width of a crossbar denied Chile a historic victory and 31 fouls committed against Colombia did little to endear the hosts further. The fact they must now take on a highly efficient German team without their talisman, Neymar or indeed their captain Thiago Silva makes it an uphill task indeed. To triumph against such odds would be a real achievement. The home nation will need every bit of the support it had in Belo Horizonte against Chile to do so.
Brazil’s opponents come in the form of Joachim Loew’s Germany. The first side in this great competition’s history to reach four semi-final’s in a row. To most, that may seem a success in itself. But this is Germany, the home to three World Cup winning squads, led by icons such as Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthaus, Jurgen Klinsmann, and Der Bomber, Gerd Mueller – nothing less than victory will suffice.
For many previous competitions the Germans were often portrayed as the villains of the piece. Dour, disciplined and efficient, they stifled purveyors of a more beautiful game in earning their three stars on the shirt. However, under Jürgen Klinsmann on home soil in 2006, the world was privy to a new brand of German football that was typically, well, non-German.
We had the first glimpses of current stallworth’s such as Phillipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, and all of a sudden everybody’s favourite bad guys were now everyone’s favourite second team. The work initiated by Klinsmann was taken up by Loew, his then number two, as the former Munich and Tottenham striker headed for the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.
It is a role Loew has excelled in, though not always in the eyes of “Die Deutschen”. Indeed, many say this will be his last chance to deliver with such a golden generation of players. Harsh some may feel, but such are the lofty expectations of both the nation and the DFB, Loew’s employers.
This time he may have all the tools and experience required to achieve the goal so eagerly craved from Munich to Hamburg, Berlin to Dortmund and all in between. Still a young team, they possess five players with over 100 caps. They have in goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer who is arguably the best in the business. Further out, players such as Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Lahm provide a sound rear-guard, which is protected by a magnificent triumvirate of Sami Khedira, Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos.
The attacking third is littered with footballing riches in the form of Mesut Ozil, Podolski, Andre Schurrle, Mario Goetze, Thomas Mueller and the World Cup record equalling Klose. An amalgamation of the ruthlessness of the German squads of old and the guile and technical ability of the new could see them through.
The other side of the draw pits Argentina against The Netherlands, the bridesmaids of the competition on three occasions. Since bursting onto the scene at Barcelona, it has been, perhaps unfairly stated that Lionel Messi would have to win a World Cup to be considered The Greatest of all-time. Given how difficult it is to win the Champions League nowadays, perhaps he has already done enough to deserve that recognition – but that is a question for another day.
Previous tournaments seemed to have over-awed or passed him by, but this years Messi seems a far cry from that player – he seems to be the Messi that lights up the Camp Nou from August to May every year. Four goals in, throw in some assists for good measure and it seems the little man might just be ready to silence the doubters.
The supporting cast have been excellent as well, rallying around their talisman to make Argentina a genuine force to be feared. Notable mentions include Man City’s excellent Pablo Zabaleta, former Benfica man Ezequiel Garay and the all-action Javier Mascherano.
The loss of Sergio Aguero has been tempered by Gonzalo Higuain who, whilst he may not have all the attributes of the City striker, is still as good a finisher as they come. The injury status of Angel Di Maria, so influential for Real Madrid in their Champions League victory remains the primary concern prior to the semi-final show down.
Finally, it is somewhat surprising that the nation completing our quartet is The Netherlands – a team many felt would not escape the group. A team prior to the tournament with a dearth of superstars not usually associated with the men in orange. Only Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie could be considered global stars. Wesley Sneijder is still a force but not the player that won a Champions League medal with Inter Milan.
Indeed it has been the form of lesser known players such as Daley Blind, Memphis Depay and Bruno Martins Indi, coupled with the tactical nous of their experienced and soon-to-be departed coach Louis Van Gaal that has seen them through. His deployment of the industrious Dirk Kuyt everywhere from left wing back to up front, and the introduction of Tim Krul for the penalty shoot-out versus Costa Rica are perhaps the pick of the bunch.
Should the nerve of the younger players hold, the talents of the more stellar players remain and the coaching prowess (and luck) of Van Gaal continue, they may surprise the footballing community once again.
The last week of a very fine World Cup promises to be an intriguing one. We will see if the hope of a nation can carry the boys from Brazil to a sixth trophy, or whether the Germans can, as they have done so many times before, spoil the party.Will it finally see Lionel Messi silence the doubters to be acclaimed as the greatest man ever to have a ball at his feet? Or will it be a case of Brilliant Orange. The Maracana on Sunday night will have the answers…..and the world will be watching.
Shane Brennan, Pundit Arena.
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