While the World Cup ground on, Brazil turned its attention on Saturday to its sudden rallying point – Neymar.
The nation had moved shockingly quickly through its emotions.
In less than 24 hours, joy at beating Colombia, despair at losing their losing their best player, mourning through the night, dawn rage at Carlos Zuniga, the man who’d injured him and then, by the afternoon, hopefulness.
At half time of the Argentina-Belgium game, Brazilian TV swung to a shot of the 22-year-old loaded onto a helicopter, ready to return home for recovery from a broken vertebra. A spokesperson at the hospital where he was treated said his prognosis is good, and that he should be fit to return to training within three- to six-weeks.
Neymar delivered a red-eyed message to the nation via video: “Our World Cup is not over.”
Social media was awash in photos of Neymar on crutches, moving under his own power. Brazilian TV ping-ponged between shots of average citizens weeping at the thought of his courage and wildly cheering his message of support.
It all had a distinctly revival tent feel. Without him, Brazil has no good reason to believe, but they still have faith. It’s contagious.
After the completion of the quarterfinals, we’re now headed in a direction so obvious, it seems mean-spirited to second-guess it.
Brazil is fated and Argentina is finally in form. They’re going to meet in the final. Book it.
The glass-half-full take is that this World Cup has now begun picking up speed as it heads down the route of obviousness. Thus far, the odds-on favourites have won all twelve knockout round games.
Since the group stages and the shock of Spain’s collapse, nothing has happened here that someone didn’t predict. The closest we’ve come to a Cinderella is Costa Rica.
And that’s exactly how they played the Dutch – as if they were staggering around the pitch in glass slippers.
Over 120 minutes of retreat, Costa Rica notched three shots on goal and one corner. The Netherlands was pinging balls off the woodwork like they were filming a Nike commercial.
It came down to penalties, which was only an excuse for Dutch manager Louis van Gaal to show that his enormous head houses three times as many synapses as they rest of us.
In the final seconds, he switched off his goalkeeper. Late-arrival Tim Krul spent the entire shootout rattling the goal frame like a caged ape, and trash talking each Costa Rican as he came up to take his shot. You’d say something here about sportsmanship if a) you hadn’t looked forward in alarm to Costa Rica repeating this second-class display in the semis and b) it hadn’t worked.
Krul saved two penalties. The Dutch advance. We’re now headed for the final four a reasonably well-informed chimp could’ve picked out nine days ago.
This tournament has had moments of high drama, but they’ve all ended the expected way.
Part of this must be down to reputations – making them, saving them and being intimidated by them.
Exhibit A: Belgium’s meek 1-0 surrender to Argentina in the early Saturday game. After squeezing out a cracking match against the U.S., you hoped Belgium would go into the quarters determined to announce themselves with quality. They’re the second youngest team here. Their real goal is Euro 2016. They had nothing to lose here.
Instead, they did the depressing European thing, deciding to be beaten quietly and with dignity, rather than risk going for it and surrendering a crooked number.
Argentina scored early through Gonzalo Higuain, then dared Belgium to open the game up. Belgium declined, which suited the defence-first Argentine mindset. What followed was another unwatchable trudge (too many of those in the past couple of days), only intermittently brightened by the genius of Lionel Messi.
It was only with a few minutes remaining that the Belgians began flinging themselves against the shaky Argentine defence.
The Costa Ricans worked the same idea, but for them it was a function of necessity rather than choice.
In either case, what was the point in waiting so long? It’s a mark of fear. Worse yet, it’s boring.
If only we’d known, we’d have spent more time earlier sending good vibes to teams like the United States and Algeria – squads that play heedlessly. Both would probably have been crushed by the likes of Argentina, but it’d have been a lot more fun to watch.
Whatever the process, the result is Germany-Brazil and Argentina-Netherlands.
The Germans have been – wait for it – workmanlike. Brazil is missing Neymar and Thiago Silva, but they have real replacement quality in Willian and Dante. More importantly, they have the emotional surge. They’re still (very narrowly) the bookies’ choice.
The Dutch have been losing steam as this thing goes on. Argentina is going in the opposite direction. I’d be more likely to put money on that one (where the Dutch are close favourites).
Three real games remaining, and we can still eke a classic out of this tournament. But the four surviving teams – all world beaters - are going to have to want that to happen.