The World Cup resembles the NCAA tournament. Often, it’s about predicting the right chalk. Spain was a shock. Most expected Italy to go farther. But it’s no surprise, as we move to the World Cup’s “Final Four,” the remaining countries – Brazil, Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands – have 10 titles and 21 final trips between them. That acknowledged, the 2014 World Cup is a seminal tournament for all four countries. However this all plays out, we will witness a strong, compelling narrative come to fruition. That’s before you get to the fact two of the four possible final pairings are among international soccer’s bitterest rivalries.
Home field advantage… Soccer’s home is England, but its heart lies in Brazil. While this athletic, hard-fouling, poor-passing Brazil side resides well toward the Dunga end of the nation’s aesthetic continuum, they still wear the canary yellow shirts (albeit with white shorts) and the five stars above their crest. Many felt this would be Brazil’s World Cup to lose based on home field advantage and their dominant 2013 Confederations Cup form, though the latter has yet to materialize. This Brazil team has barged its way to the semifinals riding a wave of emotion (not to mention fortuitous refereeing). They will need that more than ever, with captain Thiago Silva suspended and their one true world-class player, Neymar, out for the rest of the World Cup. They head into the final matches an underdog, at least in perception. Winning won’t feel like 1970 or 2002, but, after the roller coaster the country has been through on and off the pitch, it would be gratifying.
Escaping God’s shadow… For Argentine soccer, Diego Maradona was like a hit of his drug of choice. He carried La Albiceleste to a World Cup win in 1986 and a final in 1990. Excepting the 1978 tournament, which Argentina hosted and likely manipulated, the team has not gone past the quarterfinals of a modern World Cup without him, until 2014. For Lionel Messi, a World Cup win would be a noteworthy exclamation point, added to perhaps the most dominant club career ever. It would fulfill the promise of the 2005 U-20 World Cup winning generation. But for Argentina, a World Cup win would be the first true step forward on the world stage since “God” retired/imploded. Few better places to make it than their rivals’ national stadium, potentially against them.
Not quite German enough… Germany is still Germany. But it’s now 18 years since the Mannschaft won Euro 1996 and 24 years since the 1990 World Cup title. The Germans have now reached five-straight tournament semifinals under Klinsmann/Löw. The 2014 tournament could be the crowning achievement for the Lahm/Schweinsteiger/Klose teams. It could also be their fifth consecutive time heading home empty-handed and the third without even reaching the final. Recent vintage German teams have had a profusion of talent and lit up scoreboards. The 2014 version has rediscovered the nation’s characteristic power and pragmatism. With the knockout rounds devolving into an endurance test, it may be the stout, sexless Mercedes E-class left standing.
Always the bridesmaid… Being the most accomplished nation never to win the World Cup? A backhanded compliment. Any all-time greatest soccer players list contain a disproportionate number of Dutchmen. The Oranje have been to the semifinals at nine major tournaments. Yet, they have lifted a trophy only once, at Euro 1988. Cruyff could not get it done at the World Cup. Neither could Van Basten or Bergkamp. This will be the last opportunity for Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie, dispatched by Andres Iniesta in the 116th minute of the 2010 final in South Africa. Robben’s one-on-one miss with Iker Casillas in regulation may not haunt him daily. But it’s something he may wish to put right.
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