It’s Europe against South America for a place in the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth. Will it be the same intercontinental battle in the World Cup final Sunday, or a fight between neighbors? The last four teams standing are the soccer giants of both the old and new worlds.
We start Tuesday with favorite Brazil taking on Germany, the country seen as Europe’s best chance of winning the tournament. In the past when these heavyweights slugged it out, it would have been the irresistible force of Latin flair and finesse against the immovable object of Teutonic ruthlessness and efficiency. But this competition has turned those sporting stereotypes on their heads.
The hosts have stuttered and spluttered to the last four. These boys from Brazil are a long way from the Samba swagger we associate with the most successful soccer nation on the planet. They needed penalty kicks to see off Chile in the last 16, and were clinging on in the last 10 hectic minutes to protect their 2-1 lead against Colombia in the quarterfinals.
Now they have lost their two most influential players. The outstanding Neymar, the victim of a knee in the back, is the main reason they have made it this far despite a shot-shy strike force. In the heart of defense, their imperious captain, Thiago Silva, will be missed for his ability to marshal the back four as he serves a suspension for picking up two yellow cards.
In contrast, Germany seemed to ease through to this stage in second gear. In the last round, they scored with their first shot on target against France and managed only two more for the rest of the game. Defensively resolute, they comfortably limited an increasingly desperate French team to a handful of half-chances.
Not matter what formation and personnel they line up with, they will be stacked with winners from the club team Bayern Munich.
And with strength and height, they are particularly dangerous from set-plays. They have scored 15 headed goals in the past four tournaments, twice as many as any other country.
Germany is the first country in history to reach four consecutive World Cup semifinals, thanks to a conveyor-belt of young talent.
But the Brazilians have an incredible home record. They have not lost in more than 40 games, and it’s over 60 matches since they were beaten in a competitive match.
Wednesday’s contest sees a repeat of the 1978 World Cup final between Argentina and Holland. That great Dutch team of the seventies reached back-to-back finals in 1974 and 1978 but lost them both to the host nations. The present Orangemen are hoping to repeat the feat of successive finals after being runner-up in 2010. And they will be aiming to make it fourth time lucky and finally land the title.
But they are the outsiders of the remaining quartet. Impressive in the group stage after dismantling defending champions Spain and defeating Chile and Australia, they have since gone off the boil.
They were just minutes from being knocked out against Mexico until their late, late show, and then needed penalty-kick heroics from substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul to overcome Costa Rica.
So Argentina is the favorite, though they will miss injured winger Ángel di María. They too made heavy work of the knockout rounds and labored to uninspired 1-0 victories over Switzerland and Belgium. They won all three group games, but each by a single goal, and have been steady and methodical rather than quick and incisive.
However, Lionel Messi is undoubtedly growing into the tournament, and his occasional flashes of genius have been supplemented by a more consistent attacking threat in the final third. His extraordinary talent may be the difference between the teams Wednesday.
For the first time, both Brazil and Argentina have made it to the World Cup semifinals. And I think that come Sunday, we will be watching them contest the final.