Familiar flags fly to fill lineup for Cup’s final eight

Familiar flags fill lineup for Cup’s final eight

And then there were eight.

Before the tournament started, I predicted Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain to be the semifinalists, and tipped France, Colombia and Belgium to go far. Six out of seven ain’t bad.

You see I’ve been watching the World Cup since 1978. And I know that it’s really just an old boys’ club.

We’ve had three weeks of soccer shocks and surprises. And for the first time, two African nations and three North and Central American countries made it out of the group stage. But four of those are now out.

When we get to the nitty-gritty and down to the business end, it’s always the same teams still standing.

Last week, I wrote how the whole tone of the tournament can change in the knockout rounds.

Goals often dry up as games become cagey, and one slipup or misjudged pass can cost you, your team, and your nation a place in the last eight. Indeed, the last five matches have been 0-0 at halftime.

But although no second-round contest saw more than three goals, that added to the excitement. Seven out of eight ties were settled by a single goal, five went to extra time, two ended up with penalty kicks.

Anyone who watched the USA-Belgium game, scoreless at full time, can attest that you don’t need a high-scoring match for riveting drama. The close contests hold your attention until the end, and there have been 11 stoppage-time strikes so far.

This is also the most open World Cup in decades. Sometimes the group stage feels like a curtain raiser before the important stuff begins, like watching the kids kick the ball around before the adults start. But there has been no outstanding country so far, and (apart from Spain) the favorites have just about got the job done and little more. Consequently that makes for four fascinating quarterfinal matches.

First up on Independence Day is a clash of the European titans with Germany taking on France. Germany shot out of the gate and slammed four past a demoralized Portugal. But since then, a draw with Ghana and one-goal wins over the USA and Algeria (after extra-time), is hardly top-notch form.

France, in contrast — after almost missing out on even qualifying after being two goals down to Ukraine in a playoff — is perhaps peaking at just the right time. But they are more functional than flair-filled, and a Thomas Müller-infused forward line may be what wins the tie for the Germans.

After that we have Brazil against Colombia. The Colombians are the only team to have excelled in all four games: They have scored 11 goals and conceded only two. And with top-scoring striker James Rodríguez on fire, they have been a breath of fresh attacking air.

Brazil meanwhile has appeared disjointed and stilted. Rather than being swept along on a tide of fanatical home support, they look constrained by the expectation, and instead it has been their unheralded neighbors in yellow who have been playing with a swagger we associate with the Samba Boys.

And yet … there is that nagging feeling that Brazil will come good. Although they needed a penalty shootout to scrape past Chile, and are over-reliant on Neymar, the man with the golden hair and golden boots, I still expect them to make the semifinal.

Another close contest kicks us off Friday when Argentina takes on Belgium. Both countries have won their four games, but neither has found top gear.

The South Americans have won each match by a solitary goal, and but for flashes of brilliance by Lionel Messi, they may not even have made it this far. If the Argentinians are to be crowned champions, he needs his talented teammates to show up.

Belgium also has been solid and strong defensively but unspectacular. Julian Green’s volley for the USA was the first goal they conceded from open play in the tournament, and the Americans can attest to what a good goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is.

This will be an enthralling battle, but the greater experience of the South Americans may be the difference.

Finally it’s Holland and Costa Rica. The Central Americans have been the surprise package, topping a group with three former winners and then overcoming 2004 European Champions Greece in the last 16. They have been a delight to watch and deserve their success, but perhaps this is the end of the fairy tale.

The Dutch, inspired by the diving master Arjen Robben, have the ability and application to reach the last four.

But expect the unexpected, and I’m sure that this fascinating World Cup still has a few twists and turns up its sleeve.