/ 3 July 2014

A World Cup of big guns, dark horses and divers

Back to the future: Frank Chikane gives us another look at the Mbeki presidency in his latest book
Back to the future: Frank Chikane gives us another look at the Mbeki presidency in his latest book

After 154 goals in 56 matches, the World Cup is reaching its final stages. But heavyweights Brazil, Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands have failed to impress regularly. And dark horses Colombia and Belgium might cause an upset, while Costa Rica remain outsiders.

“Brazil have two great central defenders and Neymar,” wrote 1970 World Cup winner Tostão after Brazil versus Chile in his column in the Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper. Tostão was simply saying: Brazil rethink your style, restore your extensive midfield or you may not get past Colombia.

Against Chile, the hosts hoicked many long balls forward as if the midfield was nonexistent. Fernandinho was coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s solution for the faltering Paulinho, but the Manchester City player wasn’t a miracle worker who could disguise Brazil’s midfield deficiency.

For years now, Brazil have been producing destroyers and enforcers, the likes of Carlos Dunga, Mauro Silva and Gilberto Silva, instead of a Xavi or Andrés Iniesta. This production line of “unBrazilian” players stems back to the 1960s and 1970s in a reaction to Europe’s physical football.

As a result, the seleção Brasileira is no longer synonymous with o jogo bonito (the beautiful game). Never before did Brazil play as many long balls as last Saturday against Chile.

Those gruelling, toiling 120 minutes weighed on Brazil. Captain Thiago Silva sobbed as Brazil chose their penalty takers. The hosts have been a tad too emotional this summer and seem ready to wilt under the pressure.

Mercurial brilliance
With the replays of the Brazil game still rolling, James Rodríguez riffled home two goals, with Colombia defeating Uruguay 2-0 at the Maracanã stadium. He showed mercurial brilliance but without the malice of the much-maligned Luis Suárez. Rodríguez has quickly become the pivot of Colombia’s team in the absence of Radamel Falcao.

In his analysis after the game, coach José Pékerman, of Argentinian origin, tellingly said that Colombia had “placed everything” at Rodríguez’s feet. In 2011, Rodríguez had already shown his extraordinary potential at the under-20 World Cup. Now, at 22, the AS Monaco player combines his great technique, a sense for initiative and maturity to lead Colombia’s squad.

Friday’s second quarterfinal is a European derby between traditional heavyweights France and Germany. In the 1982 World Cup, they drew 3-3 in the semifinals before Germany won in the penalty shoot-out. A nasty collision between Patrick Battiston and Harald Schumacher overshadowed the game, which became a World Cup classic.

This quarterfinal at the Maracaná has the ingredients to become an all-time classic encounter as well. Germany and France are both young and talented outfits with offensive approaches.

French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who is an excellent shot-stopper, Raphaël Varane, at 21, an established centre back at Real Madrid, Paul Pogba, a physical presence with neat skills, and Karim Benzema, a clever and cold-blooded finisher, form the spine of coach Didier Deschamps’s team.

But the physical and organised Nigerians pushed a leggy France hard. Pogba, though, staged a match-winning performance, bursting forward and spreading the play. He might repeat his tricks against Germany.

Die Nationalmannschaft nearly choked against a progressive and highly dangerous Algeria, who firmly questioned Germany’s previously untarnished status as title favourites. Sofiane Feghouli and Islam Slimani ran repeatedly at central defenders Per Mertesacker and Jerome Boateng, who left acres of space. “Sweeper keeper” Manuel Neuer’s last-ditch interventions protected a high defensive line and prevented a doom scenario for Joachim Löw’s side.

Woefully out of form
But Löw will need to address some other hazards that Algeria exposed: Germany kept struggling with their back four made up of solely central defenders. Benedikt Höwedes and Shkodran Mustafi, deputising for the sick Mats Hummels, are not fullbacks. Key players Mesut Özil and Bastian Schweinsteiger, who pummelled England four years ago in the round of 16, are both woefully out of form.

On Saturday, the Lionel Messi show arrives in Brasilia when Argentina meet Belgium. The Red Devils finally jelled against the USA. Somewhat lethargic and conservative during the group stages, the Belgians, with just four Premier League-based players in the starting line-up, outclassed Jürgen Klinsmann’s side with 38 attempts on goal. Divock Origi, and then substitute Romelu Lukaku, ran havoc in the final third of the field.

After the game, Belgium’s coach Marc Wilmots said Argentina “lack balance”. For Argentinian coach Alejandro Sabella, the question indeed remains: How to integrate Messi in the team? During the qualifiers, Sabella had mild success in playing a 4-3-3 system, with Messi operating behind Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín. At this World Cup, a disjointed Argentina relies on Messi, who has hit the net four times.

Against Switzerland, Messi did just enough, but he left his magic very late. In the 118th minute he went on a trademark weaving run before slipping the ball to Ángel di María, who scored the winner.

Argentina regressed from their good performance against Nigeria, with the midfield tandem of Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano looking uneasy. They did not play like potential champions against Switzerland and will not have instilled Belgium with much fear.

The last of the quarterfinals pits the unheralded Costa Ricans against the Netherlands in Salvador.

The Dutch World Cup path has been iterative. They played a counter-attacking style against Spain and Chile in the group stages before reverting to a long-ball game in the last 20 minutes against Mexico. Louis van Gaal, Holland’s cunning coach, made the most of a water break to switch his tactical formation. He will have to realign his team against Costa Rica again as Nigel de Jong is out with a groin injury.

Jorge Pinto, whose Costa Rica edged out Greece on penalties, said he watches the likes of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder every week on TV and that they hold no surprises for him. Pinto is thus optimistic about Los Ticos’s prospects.

If the traditional powerhouses keep failing to impress on a consistent basis, an underdog like Costa Rica might well have a chance.