It wasn’t pretty, and it’s possible this Brazil squad wouldn’t be a trophy contender in any World Cup held outside Brazil, but the five-time champions battled, elbowed and willed their way to a 2-1 victory over upstart Colombia in the World Cup quarterfinals on Friday in Fortaleza.
Heading into the game, there were real concerns here in Brazil that this could be the end of the line for a Brazil team that had been outplayed on the field by Colombia through the first four games of the tournament. But you learn more about a team in one World Cup quarterfinal than you do in the four games that preceded it. That was the case for both Colombia and France, who drew relatively easy groups and tame round of 16 games before falling against Brazil and Germany, respectively, on Friday.
With such a small sample size of games at the World Cup, your perspective on a team can change quickly depending on what happens in the latter stages of the tournament. While both Colombia and France should be proud of their performances overall, both teams were disappointing on Friday as their World Cups ended.
This result now sets up a Brazil-Germany semifinal on Tuesday in Belo Horizonte. It will only be the second time the two heavyweights have met in the World Cup (the first was Brazil’s World Cup final victory over Germany in 2002), and Brazil will be without captain Thiago Silva (suspended on yellow cards) and perhaps Neymar (who went out of this game late with a back injury).
[UPDATE: Brazil's team doctor has since confirmed that Neymar will indeed miss the remainder of the competition with a broken vertebra, a massive blow to Brazil's World Cup hopes.]
Look for Thiago Silva’s replacement at center back to be Dante, who knows German players well considering he plays at Bayern Munich.
Here are my three thoughts on Friday's match:
• For Brazil, it’s all about survive-and-advance right now
Let’s be honest: This Brazil isn’t close to being in the pantheon of the great Brazil teams. Neymar is a special talent, but he’s surrounded by a mediocre group of teammates that includes perhaps the worst starting forward (Fred) who might end up winning a World Cup since Stephane Guivarc’h (France, 1998).
Brazil took advantage of two Colombian errors with goals by Thiago Silva (unmarked on an early corner kick) and David Luiz (a knuckling free kick past an inexplicably frozen David Ospina), and then the Brazilians bullied the Colombians into submission in a game where Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo somehow called 40 fouls before giving his first yellow card. Which leads us to …
• This was the worst-refereed game of the tournament
All things considered, this World Cup has been relatively well-officiated. But Carballo, who has worked Barcelona-Real Madrid games in the past, had an absolute shocker on Friday. How bad was he? Well, he let the game become disjointed and out of control by calling fouls without ever giving yellow cards for persistent infringement. He missed what should have been a red card for Brazil goalkeeper Júlio César on a play that he did whistle for a penalty. And he gave the free kick that David Luiz eventually scored on for a phantom Colombian foul.
I don’t think the fix is in by any means, but I do think referees are heavily intimidated by the Brazilian crowd and team at this World Cup. We saw it in the tournament’s first game, when Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura gave Brazil a penalty on a dive by Fred, and we saw it again on Friday.
• Let’s raise a glass to James Rodríguez
The 22-year-old Colombian whiz kid scored his tournament-leading sixth goal of the World Cup on a penalty that made the game close late, and it’s a shame they don’t stage a fifth-place game, simply for the chance to keep seeing Rodríguez play here. Whether his goal tally will stand up for the Golden Boot remains to be seen, but Rodríguez became a true global superstar here over the past three weeks, and anyone who loves the sport can’t wait to see what he does next in his career.
Unfortunately, Brazil’s strategy appeared to be fouling Rodríguez into submission, and Carballo allowed the Brazilians to get away with it. (A frustrated Rodríguez also embellished contact a few times himself.) But Brazil couldn’t stop Rodríguez completely. His exquisite pass set up Colombia’s penalty, and he buried the spot kick (while having a giant horror-movie insect lodged on his right uniform sleeve, no less).
The World Cup is now a lesser tournament without Rodríguez’s presence, but the memories will linger.