BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – So much for the upstarts crashing the World Cup party.
For the first 3 1/2 weeks of the tournament, chaos reigned. Defending champion Spain was out after the second game in the group stage. Italy and England followed soon after. Costa Rica — Costa Rica! — not only advanced from the “Group of Champions,” it won the thing. Chile nearly knocked out Brazil while Algeria gave Germany all it could handle.
James Rodriguez and Tim Howard emerged as stars, Luis Suarez not so much. It was wacky and captivating and absolutely wonderful.
And now it’s over.
The semifinals begin Tuesday, and the four teams left will be familiar to anyone who’s paid even passing attention to soccer over the years:
Five-time champion Brazil faces Germany, a three-time winner and semifinalist — or better — at the last four World Cups. Argentina, which has two World Cup titles and the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, takes on the Netherlands, runner-up four years ago in South Africa.
But as entertaining as it might have been to have a newcomer among the final four — or, better yet, playing for the title — the old standbys are not exactly slouches when it comes to drama.
Brazil was already doing its best impression of a telenovela, trying to win its sixth title while under the microscope of an adoring —yet demanding — country. Now the Selecao has to figure out how to win without their star Neymar, who is out with a fractured vertebrae after being kneed in the back during the quarterfinals.
His teammates are using Neymar’s loss as their rallying cry, which is all well and good. But they need goals, which were hard enough to come by when their star wasn’t wearing a back brace. After scoring seven goals in the first three games, Brazil has just three in the last two. And all came off set pieces.
As if not having Neymar wasn’t a big enough setback, Brazil also will be playing without captain Thiago Silva, who is suspended for an accumulation of fouls.
“We have a very difficult game ahead of us,” Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said. “But based on what we have foreseen, Germany was in our path to get to the final and the players know that.”
Germany has its own issues, however.
This is likely Germany’s last chance to avoid being a major disappointment. This is the best team it’s had in almost 30 years, yet not only has it not won a major title, its only appearance in a final was at the 2008 European championship, when it lost to Spain.
Scoring should be the least of Germany’s worries, what with a lineup that has Thomas Mueller, Mesut Oezil, Mario Goetze, Toni Kroos and Miroslav Klose. But after hanging four goals on Portugal in the opener, Die Mannschaft has been scuffling along with a goal here, a goal there, its attack disjointed and largely ineffective.
And its back line has so many holes you could drive a Volkswagen Beetle through them. If Hulk gets on track, Germany could see its title hopes end in the semifinals, just like in 2006 and 2010.
“We now need to take the next step,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said.
At least Germany has gotten close.
For all its pedigree and talent, Argentina hasn’t been to the semifinals since 1990, when it finished as runner-up to West Germany. That’s left Messi open to criticism that he’s not as good for country as he is for club.
Pele isn’t exactly objective, but he’s got a point when he says you can’t be part of the conversation for best player in history if you haven’t won a World Cup. But Messi has been dazzling here in Brazil, scoring four goals and setting up two others.
“We’ve reached our first goal,” Messi said. “Now we want more.”
So does the Netherlands.
The Dutch own the title of “best team never to win the World Cup,” finishing as runners-up three times. That, and their exuberant fans, should make them sentimental favorites. But the Dutch make it very hard to like them, let alone root for them, with their whining and thuggery.
Arjen Robben dives so much the Dutch are considering him for the Rio Olympics in 2016. It’s a wonder Costa Rica didn’t file assault charges after the abuse the Ticos took from Bruno Martins Indi and a few others.
Worst of all, the Dutch then have the nerve to complain about everybody else!
“Of course it’s frustrating,” manager Louis van Gaal said after the quarterfinal. “All we can do is passively look on.”
But if it means the semifinals are as dramatic as the games so far, no one will complain.