English playwright William Congreve was the author of more famous lines, but none seems as apt at the moment as his assertion that "Uncertainty and expectation are the joys of life. Security is an insipid thing." Despite a few jolts -- Spain's defeat to Switzerland, Denmark being soundly beaten by Japan, New Zealand holding Italy, France ... being there -- the group stages offered us a fairly mundane ride.
But the quarterfinals have been a rollercoaster, spinning us into a few heart-thumping loop-de-loops and casting the security of pre-tournament (even pre-game) predictions to the wind. The apparent dominance of the South American nations has been filed under M for myth; three of the four semifinalists are European. As we've been thrown about in this direction and that, there's no denying it's been an exhilarating. A quick look at some observations from the quarterfinals:
The Netherlands versus Brazil game sent the carriages rattling into the first hairpin bend, and by the end of it, a technically sound but rather dull Dutch side was heading for the semifinals while Brazil coach Dunga penned his resignation -- the 12th manager at this tournament to leave his post despite having fashioned a Brazil side of indisputable, if intermittent, potency.
Though the Dutch had come into the tournament off the back of a 19-match unbeaten run, their play since arriving had been effective but uninspiring. Rafael van der Vaart struggled to fill the injured Arjen Robben's boots and Robin van Persie seemed to have trouble in his own. Even with Wesley Sneijder's cajoling from midfield and Robben's return, it seemed so unlikely that the Netherlands would have enough to trouble Dunga's team. Brazil had impressed in the group stage with a galloping counter-attacking style that suggested the criticism of Dunga's pragmatism was both hopelessly romantic and misplaced. And in the first half against the Netherlands, that remained the case: Robinho danced around untroubled by Johnny Heitinga and the hapless Gregory van der Wiel while Robben, the only one of the four foremost Dutch players to look a genuine outlet, was predictable enough to allow Felipe Melo to halt his runs before the much-maligned Michel Bastos even had time to fret.
But after the break, and having failed to put more than a single goal on the board while in control of the game, things unraveled in spectacular style for the Brazilians. For a team that had distinguished itself defensively -- and particularly at set-pieces -- Brazil suddenly looked astonishingly amateur. There was an impatience to Dunga's men as the Dutch pushed harder on the gas in the second half, but while the indiscipline of Bastos (booked) and Melo (sent off) wasn't exactly a huge shock, Brazil's handling of the resulting free kicks, and its movement and awareness defending corners, was.
If you live by the sword, you die by the sword, so the saying goes, and Dunga was impaled when his slick and stylish counter-attackers couldn't outwit the Dutch, who had already notched up four wins that relied on holding onto the ball more than they did on terrorizing opposition defenses. Its progress is as remarkable as Brazil's implosion.
Other than the surprise demise of another South American side tasked with overcoming a deficit for the first time in this tournament, the parallels between Argentina's 0-4 defeat at the hands of Germany and the Netherlands-Brazil quarterfinal 24 hours beforehand are few. Argentina's defense fared far worse against a German team that has looked more like a Dutch side than the Dutch themselves.
Nigeria and Greece had looked to keep things tight in the group and offered nothing like the forward-thinking of the Germans, but for the first time Argentina's possession of the ball was nine parts toil to one part thrill. An hour passed between Germany's first and second goals but Argentina looked surprisingly short of ideas in the final third. The success with which Javier Mascherano muted Mesut Özil's influence -- Ozil had been key to Germany's destruction of England -- was matched, unfortunately for Diego Maradona, by Germany's ability to stop Lionel Messi.
Joachim Löw's team will now have to overcome Spain, which beat Paraguay today as the rollercoaster hit a plateau with Spain managing a fifth game in a row looking sluggish. What life there might have been in the first hour of the game was throttled out of it by Paraguay's limited attacking ambitions, but once again Vicente del Bosque's team lacked dynamism in midfield until the manager gave up on Fernando Torres and moved things around to accommodate Cesc Fabregas.
Spain finished the match on top and David Villa, who eventually scored the winning goal after Pedro's shot came back off the post, is as exciting a player as Spain has ever had, so it's hardly time to trouble the Inquisition. But the semifinal meeting with Germany will be a tougher nut to crack. Brazil had rightly been praised for its winning mixture of defense and attack, but it is the Germans -- barely given a chance ahead of the tournament -- who now look the finer alchemists, blending pacy attacking soccer with defensive resolve and a team ethic that is virtually unrivalled in the remaining teams.
As a footnote, one of the most stomach-churning twists as the tournament has progressed has been the willingness of players to dabble in the dark arts. Credit to the Dutch for extending their fine run, but theirs was a victory given more than it was earned, unless Robben would like to take credit for repeatedly overreacting to challenges with such flamboyant exaggeration that eventually Melo lost his marbles entirely and gave him a few studs to the leg worth writhing around for. He is not alone in trying to kid the referee, far from it, but he has surely enjoyed the most success.
The biggest furor has surrounded Luis Suarez's handball, which denied Ghana a certain winner against Uruguay. The referee dismissed Suarez and awarded Ghana a penalty, which Asamoah Gyan missed. The referee acted to the full extent of the law, unfortunately Gyan will have to shoulder the responsibility for putting the penalty into the crossbar, and there's even some credence in the argument that most players would react with their hands in the same situation. But Suarez's subsequent comments make uncomfortable reading.
"I made the best save of the tournament," he said, with seemingly scant regard for the ethics at stake. "Sometimes in training I play as a goalkeeper so it was worth it. There was no alternative but for me to do that. Now we are in the semifinals -- although I was very sad because no one likes to be sent off. " Not many teams like to be denied a winning goal, either. Ghana probably made enough of its own mistakes to go out, putting more shots off target than Uruguay managed in total, but Suarez would be wise not to revel so publically in the manner of Uruguay's success.