Sometime in the past week, the World Cup deteriorated from a glorious tournament that could be won by anyone to a burdensome obligation that could be lost by only a few. After a scintillating and net-bulging group stage, the Round of 16 was far more morose, though France and Colombia still attacked with sparkling élan, penalty shoot-outs tortured Brazil and invigorated Costa Rica, and Algeria and the United States fought ’til red in tooth and claw. Ultimately, though, the higher-ranked teams swept all eight of those games and, as Cinderellas limped home, the unwatchable stepsisters of cynicism and risk-aversion subbed in to befoul the pitch.
The four quarterfinal matches were forgettable ordeals won, once again, by the favorites, bringing the number of upsets in 12 knock-out matches to zero. This dominance hasn’t been a case of quality rising to the top so much as quality fouling, boring, and stomping their opposition into the mire beneath them. What went wrong?
Let’s start with France v. Germany and Argentina v. Belgium, as both games were sabotaged by a common outbreak of Gallic ennui. It’s a truism in soccer that big matches are enhanced when the better team scores first. The theory is that lesser teams, which might be inclined to park the bus and hope for penalties, must now come out and play to score, which will open up the game. In both these games, the stronger team did score first, very early in fact: Germany in the 13th minute and Argentina in the eighth. And yet for the rest of both games, the two highly touted squads of cheese-eating, Gauloise-puffing Francophones did le squat diddly. Granted, some of the Belgian indifference may have been the Flemish contingent’s fault, but the entire squad still managed only one piddling shot on target for the entire game. And les Messieurs Crappeaux on the French squad mused out their remaining 77 minutes as though they were expecting an Allied army to rescue them. It certainly felt like a centennial reenactment of the 1914 fixture. Or perhaps they were just on strike.
Next, let’s examine Brazil v. Colombia, if we can bring ourselves to look once more upon that mutilated carcass. This match was a perfect exemplar of the dire World Cups of old: two groups of football hooligans kicking the ligaments out of each other while the referee slept through the first 40 fouls and turned into a croupier for the last 10; goals, if at all, permitted only from set-pieces. Brazil is so desperate for this trophy they seem to have turned into Lennie with his mouse, squeezing the life out the thing they love. They perpetrated the transparently sinful tactic of tripping, niggling, and kicking James Rodríguez all night long, then wondered why the gods could forsake them so much as to take their beloved Neymar. The greater loss, though, may be their captain, Thiago Silva, taken from them by his own infantile urge to butt-check the Colombian goalie.
Finally, the Netherlands v. Costa Rica. Surely, it might have been entertaining to see a country like Costa Rica gatecrash the semifinals and, in the end, only the fingertips of one boorish Boer stopped them. But the great goalkeeping/trashtalking substitute, Tim Krul, simply formalized what 120 minutes of football had long established: the Dutch were the vastly superior side. And after three other quarterfinals bereft of open and attacking soccer, the Fates would be creating awful incentives if they punished the one team that poured forward in search of winning goals.
So what will we see in the semi-finals? We’ll certainly see a quartet of soccer superpowers, if only by reputation more than recent form. But one of those teams is not like the others, the one that has never before won the World Cup: the Netherlands.
In the first match, Brazil will once again attempt to defy its mediocrity when it takes on Germany. But this time, neither of its icons, Neymar or Silva, will play. And, more alarmingly for the hosts, Germany doesn’t have a single star who can be brutalized into submission. But we can still expect the Brazilians to give it a good old whack. Perhaps they’ll fill those open spots with a few Gracie brothers.
In the second match, the Dutch will face the Argentinians. Like their South American counterparts in the other match, Argentina, too, will be missing a pair of stars. Sergio Agüero, who has been injured for a while, and Ángel di María who just went down in the last match. That will just leave Messi, who will almost certainly receive a vigorous de Jonging all night long. For the sake of dynamic football, let’s hope that Robben and Messi can dodge all the capoeira and lay on a match worthy of their finest Champions League battles.