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Soccer’s heavyweights prepare for mammoth World Cup quarterfinals

Croatia meets Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals Friday. (Ronald Wittek/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

RAYYAN, Qatar — The upstarts from Australia, Senegal and the United States went as far as they could go. Japan headed home after two stunning victories and a near upset, while Saudi Arabia left after one shocker. Heavyweights took on defeat but proceeded, nonetheless.

After a rambunctious 2½ weeks of soccer, order has been largely restored to this World Cup, except for Morocco, which has captured the hearts of the Arab world — and underdogs everywhere — by crashing the quarterfinal party.

Brazil, Argentina, France and England have combined for 10 world trophies and six second-place medals. Add the Netherlands and Croatia into the mix, and the number of championship appearances grows to 20 overall.

Portugal has never gone to the final but won the European Championship — the sport’s second-most-prestigious competition — six years ago.

World Cup bracket and knockout round schedule

“It is a very, very thin line,” Argentina Coach Lionel Scaloni said Thursday. “We cannot really tell which is the favorite and who can win. We are talking about evenly matched national teams. Some opponents, in principle, you might think they don’t have enough talent. In the end, you realize it’s quite the contrary. Any of the eight teams can play in the final.”

Brazil began the tournament as the favorite and remains the favorite despite a group-stage misstep against Cameroon. Argentina has Lionel Messi. France features Kylian Mbappé. England has 56 years of pent-up frustration since Wembley glory.

A three-time runner-up, the Netherlands is the best soccer-playing country never to have won the title.

“The tournament is starting tomorrow for real for us,” Netherlands Coach Louis van Gaal said, dismissing the round-of-16 test from the United States.

As the ambitious USMNT exits the World Cup, the focus shifts to what’s possible

The top-heavy quarterfinals bring mammoth matchups, starting Friday when the Netherlands plays Argentina and Brazil faces 2018 finalist Croatia. On Saturday, reigning champion France will clash with England, and Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo expected on the bench again, is bracing for Morocco.

Victories by Argentina, a two-time champion, and Brazil, a five-time winner, would set up a semifinal Tuesday and their first World Cup clash since 1990. First, though, they have work to do.

In Thursday’s news conference, Brazilian Coach Tite answered questions about injuries, tactics and Croatia but mostly was quizzed about dancing — specifically, Brazil’s post-goal sambas that have included its 61-year-old coach.

“If you ask me to dance, I will dance,” he said. “It’s not my national team. It’s the Brazilian national team, which I have the responsibility of being the coach. I will not speak about those who do not know the history and culture of Brazil.”

Brazil was criticized by some in the soccer world for being too expressive after scoring four goals in the first half of its 4-1 romp over South Korea in the round of 16.

“It is the Brazilian culture when a goal is scored; we will never disrespect it,” Tite said. “We will continue to do it our way.”

With another Brazil win, another chance to witness gasping World Cup beauty

As for his dance moves, Tite added: “It’s a connection I have with the younger generation. I am 61 and working with players 21, 22 [years old]. They could be my grandchildren. All of those who truly know me know if I have a chance to connect with them, I will continue dancing.”

He did say, though, “I have to train more [because I have a] stiff neck.”

There was also the issue of cats. During Brazil’s media session at its training venue Wednesday, a cat jumped onto the table. A team communications official scooped up the curious feline and dropped it. Asked for an update on the cat Thursday, Tite said: “You should ask our media officer. He said: ‘Go, go, go away cat. Go away, cat.’ ”

The Croatians, who edged Japan on penalty kicks in the round of 16, do not seem to care about cats or dancing.

“They have their own way. They celebrate. They are festive,” Croatia Coach Zlatko Dalic said of Brazilian expression. “They demonstrate their character and tradition. Respect or disrespect? I can’t say. I wouldn’t want to see my players dance. It’s a different culture. It’s nice to watch them.”

Dalic and his players are more concerned about an opponent that regained the services of superstar Neymar (ankle injury) for the knockout stage.

Neymar returns, and Brazil exhales

“Brazil is the favorite. That’s understood,” star midfielder Luka Modric said. “But proven favorites can also lose.”

After Croatia’s third-place finish in 1998 and second spot in 2018, “Our ambitions will not stop there,” Dalic said.

Van Gaal’s news conference was all over the place, featuring usual sparring with reporters.

He discussed his future, claiming, “I am 71, but of course I look marvelous and incredibly young.”

He responded to a report that Argentina star Ángel Di María had called him the worst coach he had played for when both were at Manchester United. “He is one of the very few players to say that,” van Gaal said. “Usually it’s the other way around.”

Blackistone: Morocco’s World Cup team represents a new era of soccer nationalism

Dutch star Memphis Depay was also at the dais.

“Sometimes a head coach has to make decisions that don’t always end well,” van Gaal said. “There’s someone here sitting next to me, the same happened to him [with me at Manchester United]. Now we kiss each other mouth to mouth.”

Depay laughed and wagged his finger.

Portugal will have to deal with a Moroccan side riding a wave of emotion (while conceding one goal — an own goal — in four matches). Morocco blanked toothless Spain through 120 minutes and a penalty kick shootout.

“They didn’t win because of what Spain did,” Portugal Coach Fernando Santos, “but because of their own merit.”

If you think Morocco’s fans emoted, you should’ve seen the news conference

Portugal, a 6-1 winner over Switzerland in the round of 16, is seeking its first semifinal appearance since 2006. Santos, though, would prefer his team temper its excitement.

“When we are very excited, very euphoric, we go beyond what we should do,” he said. “Football is not fun. You have to play, you have to run, but having too much fun is not appropriate. It might cause problems and make things more complicated.”

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.

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