KAZAN, Russia — As the funkiest modern World Cup got still funkier on the way to a “Funkytown” final coming July 15, Friday night in Kazan brought a fresh case of major merit. The impressive construction of a ballyhooed “generation” from the smallish nation of Belgium, a matter that had caused years of discussion but only glimpses of glory, found an ultimate ratification.

Belgium’s 2-1 win over the last standing World Cup kingdom, Brazil, not only pushed the Red Devils into the semifinals, one major tournament after they went out of Euro 2016 with a 3-1 loss to wee Wales. It not only set up a major international semifinal as a border fuss between Belgium and France that doubles as a rich collection of sumptuous attacking. It not only pruned the 32-team World Cup into six remaining European teams with, somehow, only two previous World Cup titles among them, either a far cry or a far laugh from the same number at this juncture in 2014 (10), or 2010 (seven) or 2006 (12).

No, look what Belgium did to Brazil. In an event in which the mainstays tend to stay main, quadrennium after quadrennium, a country of 11.5 million dumped Brazil alongside fellow titans Germany, Argentina and Spain upon the exit tarmac, just as Italy and the Netherlands never had landed. It not only left Brazil as a beaten quarterfinalist for the third time in the last four World Cups, with the other World Cup bringing a 7-1 semifinal loss that made a quarterfinal win seem sort of misguided. It not only meant the five-time champion’s lapse in World Cup titles will have reached 20 years by the time the teams arrive in Qatar in 2022, and that similar questions about whether Lionel Messi could get a World Cup for Argentina at age 31 will hover around Neymar, who by then will be 30.

It also left the kaleidoscopic South American nation of more than 200 million and its thoughtful manager in something of an emotional heap.

“Are you questioning God?” one question went, a reference to how Brazil Manager Tite once did so vocally during a rash of injuries.

“I’m not questioning God,” the thoughtful 57-year-old Tite said. “That was a moment of imbalance of mine.”


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He also said, after his gifted team had slipped behind 2-0 by the 31st minute and spent the rest of the evening in an artful desperation: “It’s hard for me to talk to you. It’s very hard. The feeling is really bitter. It’s heavy. It’s hard to be here.” And: “Even with all the pain and all the bitterness and difficulty coming here talking to you, if you like football, you have to like this game. . . . You can sit back and say, ‘What a match.’ . . . What a beautiful game.”

And as his bummer of a night before a Brazil-partisan 42,873 in Kazan Arena left him venturing into philosophy, he made statements such as: “Football has many variables and has to be seen in a context. It has to be assessed in a very holistic way.”

Yet maybe he never said anything more pertinent than what he said of the Belgians, who spent the 2014 World Cup knockout stage outclassing the United States and then falling tepidly and 1-0 to Argentina: “These are very experienced players,” he said. “[Romelu] Lukaku, a top player. [Kevin] De Bruyne, a top player. [Eden] Hazard, a top player. [Jan] Vertongehen, [Vincent] Kompany, also. [Thibaut] Courtois. It’s technical quality.”

And he raved about Courtois, the Chelsea goalkeeper among eight fellow Belgium starters who played this past season in the English Premier League (most of them for the big-boy clubs), and who, in added time, with Belgium hanging on and its manager still fearing an undeserved loss, got a hasty read on one last Neymar drive curling brilliantly from the top of the box toward the top right corner of the goal.

Courtois reached up with his trailing right hand and nudged it upward over the roof.

“A goalkeeper who really made a difference,” Tite called Courtois.


Thibault Courtois preserves Belgium’s lead with a save of a shot by Neymar in added time. (Robert Ghement / EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Brazilian banishment and Belgian breakthrough had collided, and both mattered. It began with the tactical adaptations of Belgium Coach Roberto Martinez, who, as with a horde of his players, knows England and Wales well, having managed three of their clubs on his career path to Brussels. Martinez had people playing in places they hadn’t been playing, including Lukaku on the right and De Bruyne, that maestro passer, in a score-minded motif.

“I think we switched things up tactically speaking,” said De Bruyne, who soon added, “We created a lot of opportunities, and they really didn’t know what they had to do.”

The first goal, in the 13th minute, carried the slight flukiness of ricocheting off a corner kick enough that it seemed to graze the fine head of the veteran Kompany and Fernandinho’s right biceps before deciding to become an own goal. The beautiful second, in the 31st, had Lukaku barreling up the pitch in a bull-in-a-china-shop romp until he fed to De Bruyne who, curiously, had further unmarked help to his right.

He paused, let the game whir rightward by him a bit, then sent a blast into the left corner.

That established the match as a matter of riveting Brazilian trouble. It threw extra onus onto every finish that fizzled or went awry as the second half got going. It heaped a test onto Belgium when Philippe Coutinho’s gorgeous cross found Renato Augusto’s vivid head in the 76th minute, and the latter knocked one home to halve the chasm.

“It was a test of our character, especially the last 15 minutes,” De Bruyne said.

Then it wreaked misery in the closing minutes for Martinez, who said, “It was very difficult because the game went really well, and then the last five minutes I thought the players could lose in a way they didn’t deserve.”

Martinez raved over his players’ “concentration,” their “belief,” their “reaction after conceding” against what he called “the best team in the tournament” and a team that “brings that psychological barrier.” He called himself “the proudest man on Earth” because he gave “a very different plan” and the players proved uncommonly capable of mastering it. He said, “The tactical advantage was just an aspect; the performance was stronger than the tactical plan.”

It forged a fresh identity and, look at this, a spot one rung from the final. “That’s the match that the whole world will be watching,” de Bruyne said, aware the whole world figures to see something funkily fresh.

— Chuck Culpepper

***

In-game updates

Courtois makes a breathtaking save

Neymar bent a shot around the Belgian defense that was headed for goal, but the Red Devils’ keeper lunged for it and flicked it over top the cross bar to preserve a one-goal lead in injury time.


Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois saves a shot from Brazil’s Neymar. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Yellow card to Brazil’s Fagner

In the 90th minute.

Belgium substitution: Tielemans for Lukaku

In the 87th minute.

Yellow card to Brazil’s Fernandinho

In the 85th minute.

Belgium substitution: Vermaelen for Chadli

In the 83rd minute.

Goal, Brazil!

And all of a sudden, things look a lot more interesting. Philippe Coutinho chipped a cross in for Renato Augusto in the 76th minute, and he smacked a header into the net. The Seleção is one goal away from equalizing.

Brazil substitution: Renato Augusto for Paulinho

In the 73rd minute.

Yellow card to Belgium’s Meunier

In the 71st minute. Meunier will miss the semifinals, should Belgium advance, with a yellow-card suspension.

Yellow card to Belgium’s Alderweireld

In the 48th minute.

Brazil substitution: Firmino for Willian

To begin the second half.

Halftime update: Belgium 2, Brazil 0

After a first half in which everything went Belgium’s way, the Red Devils finish the first 45 minutes ahead of Brazil 2-0. Belgium survived an early scare — a well-executed Neymar corner kick — to roar back with two goals in 18 minutes.

Vincent Kompany’s header struck Brazilian defender Fernandinho for an own goal in the 13th minute. In the 31st minute, a wicked Belgian counterattack found midfielder Kevin De Bruyne 22 yards out for a shot that might have left a vapor trail. The last time Brazil, the five-time champion, fought back from a two-goal deficit in a World Cup match was in the 1938 third-place match against Sweden.

***

First-half updates

Goal, Belgium!

Belgium is in charge now. Kevin De Bruyne’s laser beam from 22 yards in the 31st minute put the Red Devils up 2-0 on Brazil. The score came off a counterattack from a Brazilian corner. Belgium’s defense cleared the cross, and striker Romelu Lukaku took the ball 45 yards from his own net. He ran the midfield and beat two Brazilian defenders before his pass found De Bruyne, who stepped into a wonder strike. The score puts the Seleção firmly on its heels early in the game.

Goal, Belgium!

As the game speeds up and gets increasingly disorganized, both sides have begun to rely on set pieces. The Red Devils struck first in the 13th minute off a brilliantly executed corner. Vincent Kompany flicked a header toward his compatriots in the six-yard box, but the ball caught the shoulder of Brazil’s Fernandinho instead and found the back of the net.

Brazil gets the first chance

Off a Neymar-struck corner, Thiago Silva got his thigh on the cross inside the six-yard box and the ricochet caught Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois by surprise. The effort nicked the post and bounced wide, and Belgium countered with an offensive charge of its own.

The game has opened up early. Both sides are playing with speed and pressuring the ball the full length of the field.

Starting lineups announced

Team Profiles

Brazil 

  • Previous results: Drew with Switzerland, 1-1. Defeated Costa Rica, 2-0. Defeated Serbia, 2-0. Defeated Mexico in the round of 16, 2-0.
  • Best World Cup finish: Champion, 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002.
  • Notable: Dating to 1998, Brazil’s last six World Cup losses have all come against European opposition.
  • FIFA world ranking: 2. Elo world ranking: 1.

Belgium 

  • Previous results: Defeated Panama, 3-0. Defeated Tunisia, 5-2. Defeated England, 1-0. Defeated Japan in the round of 16, 3-2.
  • Best World Cup finish: Fourth place, 1986
  • Notable: Belgium’s last two World Cup campaigns both ended against South American teams: against Argentina in the 2014 quarterfinals, and against Brazil in the 2002 second round.
  • FIFA world ranking: 3. Elo world ranking: 3.

— Jacob Bogage

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