It was an unusual sight. There was Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar, about to face the most important five minutes of his life. And he was crying. Now, penalties have reduced many a grown man to tears, but that’s usually after they have been missed. “I was crying because several team-mates came to support me and tell me nice, beautiful things … I’m an emotional person,” Cesar explained afterward, his two crucial saves helping his side advance to the quarterfinals, 3-2 on penalties, after a pulsating 1-1 tie with Chile on Saturday.
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There was a velocity and ferocity here that you rarely see in club soccer. Frankly, it was exhausting to watch, so lord only knows what it was like to play in. Brazil may have created more chances and had a goal disallowed for the most marginal of handballs, but Chile fought like their very lives depended upon it.
Brazil is now just three matches from winning the tournament (“Three steps from heaven” was how their bellicose coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, put it), but it’s still failing to convince. Hulk had one of his better games in the World Cup – although if his body gets any wider, he really will have to change his name to Bulk – but fellow forward Fred has the mobility of a closet, but with less grace.
As ever, the hopes of 200 million people rest on the slender shoulders of Neymar. That lightweight body took a heck of a buffeting during 120 minutes of action, but you were never in doubt that he was going to score what turned out to be the decisive penalty. Whether he’s running up to take a penalty, drifting past three players en route to goal, or, bizarrely, adjusting his underpants in the tunnel prior to the second half, he seems immune to the intense glare of the world media and his nation’s expectations.
Poor Chilean defender Gonzalo Jara. Charged with taking the last penalty to keep his nation in the tournament, the odds were forever not in his favour. The last eight World Cup penalty shootouts have all been won by the side taking the first penalty. Worse, when a player takes a kick that will spell elimination if he misses, well, he misses 56 percent of the time. Sure enough, Jara rattled his shot against the post, the sound that kick-started parties all across Brazil.
The Brazilians face another tough challenge on Friday when Colombia will be their quarterfinal opponent. The Colombians brushed aside a disappointing (Luis Suarez-less) Uruguay 2-0, in a one-sided affair that served as fair warning to the Brazilians. This Colombian side – coached by mensch on the bench Jose Pekerman – is fast becoming the team of the tournament. In James Rodriguez (don’t call him “James”; the name’s Ham-es, Ham-es Rodriguez) they have the finals’ top scorer (five goals). And his first on Saturday night was a thing of such beauty, it should be framed and displayed in the Metropolitan Museum.
Controlling the ball on his chest (Hulk - look, no hands!), some 25 yards from goal, he pivoted in the same movement and unleashed a sumptuous volley past baby-faced Uruguayan goalkeeper Muslera. As they say in England, a goal good enough to win the game, the Wimbledon final, the Grand National and the Boat Race. His second was a pretty special team effort, too.
The last four matches between Brazil and Colombia have all been ties, including three 0-0s in previous World Cup qualification tournaments. However, if Friday’s game finishes 0-0, the diary will eats its kippa.
The excitement continues Sunday, with Netherlands vs. Mexico and Costa Rica vs. Greece. Like David Luiz singing the Brazilian national anthem, the diary is going to stick its neck out here: Mexico and Costa Rica to triumph and meet in Friday’s second quarterfinal.
Netherlands vs. Mexico, 7 P.M.
Costa Rica vs. Greece, 11 P.M.