World Cup Diary / And Then There Were Eight...

Brazil will be looking for a new color shirt if it loses to Colombia.

AFP

Trying to pick the winner of this year’s World Cup is proving a tricky business, with most teams struggling for consistency. Brazil, Netherlands, Germany, Argentina, France … all flirted with a premature exit in the round of 16, none exactly enhancing their claims to be the world’s best. Indeed, Brazil was only saved by a lachrymose goalkeeper against Chile, while Germany was saved by a goalkeeper who made his most important interventions about 25 yards from his own goal-line. As for Netherlands? It has Arjen Robben’s childhood swimming instructor to thank for that late penalty against Mexico.

The only side that’s played consistently well in all four matches is Colombia, but how will it fare now the pressure is truly on and it’s facing host nation Brazil, a side it has only ever beaten once (back in 1991)? We’re about to find out.

The last time Brazil hosted the World Cup in 1950 was to prove a traumatic event for the Brazilians. So traumatic, in fact, that they ditched their (then) traditional white shirts after losing the deciding tournament game to another South American side, Uruguay. Citing superstition, they opted instead for the yellow shirt with which they have since become synonymous. What chance them swapping the yellow shirts forever if they lose Friday? Slimmer than Oscar after a sauna in Manaus, but we’ll see.

It’s unlikely the Brazilian side will be overconfident against Colombia, but we’re less sure about the public. Back in 1950, a Brazilian newspaper printed an early edition on the day of their final game, with a picture of the Brazilians and the caption “These are the world champions.” The Uruguayans didn’t take kindly to the slur - the team’s coach actually got his players to urinate on piles of the newspaper as part of their prematch ritual. So, Brazil will have to handle a Colombian team in the form of its life, public expectation and just hope that no local newspapers proclaim it champion on Friday morning.

The game will be notable for bringing together two of the tournament’s leading lights: Neymar and James Rodriguez, the leading scorer with five goals. James’ volley against Uruguay in the round-of-16 remains unsurpassed for individual brilliance and his all-around play has been the best at the tournament. He celebrates his 23rd birthday a day before the final on July 13, which would make for some present.

There have been concerns about the fitness of Neymar (full name Brian Neymar – sorry – Neymar da Silva Santos Junior), but we’re confident he’ll be playing Friday, even if he’s covered in bandages and in plaster. And let’s face it, even with a full body cast he’s going to be more mobile than Fred.

There’s much more to admire about Jose Pekerman’s Colombia than its leading scorer. Firstly, there’s its nickname, Los Cafeteros (the people of the coffee). So much more evocative than “the Reds,” don’t you think? Secondly, its willingness to attack and defend as a team. Thirdly, Juan Cuadrado, a dreadlocked, high-octane winger who’s been involved in all the team’s best moves. And last, but definitely not least, the choreographed, exuberant post-goal dance celebrations, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “Colombian line dancing.”

And remember, Colombia is doing all this without its main man, injured striker Radamel Falcao. No wonder it’s topping all the polls for whom neutrals want to see lift the trophy.

Friday’s other quarterfinal is equally intoxicating: European powerhouses France and Germany clash in Rio, with the Germans no doubt feeling the effects of Monday’s draining 2-1 victory over Algeria. France also struggled to overcome Nigeria the same day, but seems in better shape to stop the Germans reaching their fourth consecutive semifinal.

Those of a certain age will recall two previous World Cup meetings between the sides, particularly the 1982 semifinal classic in Seville, which West Germany won on penalties after the sides drew 3-3. The game is still remembered for German goalkeeper Harald “Toni” Schumacher’s “tackle” (aka assault) on French defender Patrick Battiston. More than 30 years on, it’s still impossible to watch without feeling a sense of outrage that the German wasn’t even booked for his challenge:

The Germans also won the 1986 semifinal, 2-0, but the French probably start as slight favorites this time around (unless it goes to penalties, of course). Germany has looked increasingly one-paced and sluggish, its defense surprisingly brittle. Coach Joachim Low will be hoping to, ahem, welcome Mats Hummels back for the France match, otherwise it may well be game over for his side.

We love the random statistics being painstakingly produced for this year’s tournament (mainly because it shows there are people out there even sadder than us). For example, did you know that this World Cup holds the record for most goals scored by substitutes? (Twenty-nine, since you were asking.) Or that Argentina’s Javier Mascherano has made more tackles (22) than any other player in the tournament? And that he complained to the referee after every single one of them? OK, we made the last bit up, but watch him against Belgium on Saturday and see if it isn’t true.

The diary will let its heart rule its head and predict wins for Colombia and France, with the two sides to meet in Tuesday’s semifinal. Happy viewing.

Today’s games:

Germany vs. France, 7 P.M.
Brazil vs. Colombia, 11 P.M.