KEIR RADNEDGE in BELO HORIZONTE: In South Africa, four years ago, the quarterfinals comprised four teams from South America, three from Europe and one from the rest of the world (Ghana).
So, for all the agonised questioning concerning European national team football, the stats from Brazil 2014 are looking brighter for UEFA and president Michel Platini. This time the same stage of the finals, on Friday and Saturday, offers one from the rest of the world (then Ghana, now Costa Rica), a reduced three from CONMEBOL (Argentina, Brazil and Colombia) and four from Europe (Belgium, France, Germany and Holland).
Intriguingly, the only one of the South American trio whose football has truly earned such progress is Colombia. The Cafeteros are the in-form team of the eight and may dare to dream that, for the hosts, the ‘wrong’ yellow-shirted fans could be entering football dreamland this weekend.
Argentina have shown no better form than Brazil. Each depends too heavily on their lone superstar. For Brazil and Neymar read Argentina and Messi. He did the trick again yesterday: alert as ever after 115 punishing minutes, he capitalised on a split-second of time, half a metre of space, and was away.
Messi hurdled one tackle, drew defenders toward him like a footballing magnet and thus opened up the space into which Angel Di Maria strode to shoot the winning goal.
Switzerland had brought their best game to the second round and been defeated only narrowly. Argentina, very properly, left the Swiss players and their retiring manager, Ottmar Hitzfeld, on the pitch at the final whistle to take the plaudits of the crowd.
Where Hitzfeld’s emotions were, who knows? He had insisted on stepping out with his team after learning of the death of his brother back in Europe the previous day.
Honour in defeat
Switzerland were not the only team who gained more honour in defeat than did their opponents in victory. So did the United States after their Hollywood thriller against Belgium.
The Belgians, at last, played the football due to their talent from the start of the match instead of in only the last half an hour. Their punishment for a rusty attacking performance was to meet an American team who made up what they lacked in class with energy, commitment and spirit.
Even when Belgium finally went 2-0 ahead in extra time Jurgen Klinsmann’s men refused to accept the inevitable. Inspired by the heroics of Tim Howard – more saves (25) by any goalkeeper in any World Cup match since records began in 1966 – they even pulled one goal back.
If the first 90 minutes saw the US besieged as if back at The Alamo, so the tables were turned in the last 10 minutes. Belgium progressed but the Americans were due vast pride in performance.
As Klinsmann said: “We gave everything for the fans, a real drama, a thriller. We had enough possibilities to equalise and even to put it away earlier. It was a game that went to the extreme and I’m very proud of our team.
“They gave everything. They made their country very proud both tonight and with their entire performance in this World Cup. Every player on the field went to his limit. It’s the way we play, with high intensity in every game. I told the players they should be very proud of themselves.”
The rest of the world has watched the enthusiasm back in the US with a sort of ill-informed, delight. It’s one of the irritants about soccer in the US that the rest of the world takes a patronising view of the game’s take-up in North America. In fact, grassroots and youth participation levels – for players, coaches, fans – is phenomenal.
Overall, long-time US fans and officials might feel a tinge of disappointment that the national team have yet to emulate – let alone the surpass – the side who reached the quarter finals of the World Cup . . . all the way back in 2002.