The Estadio do Maracana here in Rio holds 78,838 people. It was full on Friday for the quarter-final between France and Germany.
A cheerful, peaceful crowd. A lot of jolliness. The overall scene did not have the vague tension, lubricity and air of impending recklessness that surrounded the victory of Colombia over Uruguay a few days earlier at the same venue.
That one was all about meaning – flashy, panache-punchy Colombia announcing it had arrived. And the message was aimed at Brazil.
What the capacity crowd saw here on Friday were two giants of Europe sluggishly battle it out. Germany won with cunning and a determination to dull a potentially sharp-edged French attacking line.
Very European situation, it all was. Inside and outside.
Outside, beforehand, among the vast crowd were the expected groups and individuals, supporters of both countries, colourfully dressed, posing for pictures. They pose with and for one another. And, usually, for the local TV cameras and press photographers looking for images of glee and gaiety.
Two young German women were there, spectacularly dressed in vintage gowns, with garlands in the German colours in their acres of flowing hair. They smiled, waved a bit at admirers.
But when a Brazilian TV crew and some photographers moved in capture the image, then they said, “No.” Or “Nein,” to be precise.
No photos, no TV footage. They looked annoyed as photographers pleaded. The photographers looked befuddled. Why come to the match dressed like this and haughtily dismiss us? That seemed to be the general, quizzical reaction.
By the end of the match, when I recalled that culture-clash scene, it seemed laden with meaning.
Germany didn’t come to the Maracana to entertain. To be admired, maybe. It came to conquer with its stern, confident method. The game was miles from the thrill rides that have marked this tournament. Solid midfield control and discipline was what mattered. No glamour to see here; move along to the matches featuring South American teams if you want to see that.
The German victory means Germany not only advances but shapes the overriding narrative of this World Cup – Europe’s dour emphasis on control and determined sense of superiority clashing with Latin panache and exhibitionist impulses.
Midfield was the key for Germany: Hold it, control it, show you’re in charge and never let go, never indulge.
To that end, manager Joachim Low started both Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, old hands at commanding the central area and slowing any opposition attempts at encroachment. By the time it was 10 minutes into the second half and imperative to make changes, France manager Didier Deschamps was stymied. There seemed little possibility that Germany would relinquish control and frantic counterattack was the only option.
In the coming semi-final between Germany and Brazil, you can bet that the same tactic, very European, for Germany, will prevail. Make a statement, don’t put on a show, just as those women did.
In a World Cup in which Chile, Mexico, Colombia and Costa Rica thrived and then many fell by the wayside, the story now flows forward toward the moment when the threads of the narrative intertwine and the crux of the matter is decided.
No European team has won a World Cup held in South America. The heat, the travel, the noisy theatre of South American soccer are factors. (The match between Brazil and Colombia was classic South American theatre – all stop-start flaring rage and seemingly senseless frenzy.)
Now, looking at the teams remaining as the final action unfolds, one can see the old Europe/South America divide become the focus.
Brazil must now get by Germany, and they look capable. Colombia looked naive against a Brazil newly emboldened for hard-man theatrics. Whatever emotional fragility they had is gone. The histrionics are now anchored in expressing overreaction to being called on for excessive fouls. Germany will be haughty and disciplined about that sort of thing.
Of the teams that remain, only one looks to be a combination of both European and South American strengths and styles. That’s Belgium, but Belgium is a team of the future, not now.
At the moment, the strands and subplots fade.
This World Cup will end with a culture clash of styles and attitude. Between pragmatism and prettiness; between making a statement and exhibitionism.