Brazil, as coach Luiz Felipe Scolari describes it, are “two steps from heaven”. But if the World Cup hosts are to achieve glory, they must go via the route of the embattled game rather than the “beautiful game” with which Brazilian football is eternally connected.
Tonight, in Belo Horizonte’s magnificent Mineirao stadium, Brazil confront a German team with confidence regained after their despatch of European neighbours France in the quarter-finals; tomorrow, Argentina can lift Leo Messi closer to the one title he lacks — and craves — by resisting Holland’s masters of football chess.
In themselves, the semi-finals create World Cup history. Never before have both match-ups been repeats of previous finals. Brazil defeated Germany in 2002 with two goals from (the original) Ronaldo in Yokohama, Japan, and Argentina extinguished Holland in extra time in Buenos Aires in 1978.
If further omens should be drawn, no European nation has ever won the World Cup in Latin America where the “home” players draw sustenance from a childhood familiarity with the conditions and a power of stadium support denied them in venues to which few of their fans can afford to travel.
Brazil and Argentina began the tournament as favourites to reach Sunday’s final in Maracana. A significant factor in both cases was the ambition and talent of the star men: Neymar and Messi. Hence Neymar’s back injury — talk of a miracle recovery is fanciful — is a devastating blow. Hardly less important for the team is the one-game suspension of captain and central defender, Thiago Silva.
However, Scolari — a complex mix of selector, psychologist, dictator and father figure — is rebuilding competitive morale by instilling an “us against the world” credo in his team. “Let’s do it for Neymar” is the new battle cry.
In practice, spirit, fervent support and manic determination, as illustrated most vividly on the pitch by David Luiz, can only go so far. The underlying concern about Brazil was that they have never yet played well, not even up to the style with which they concluded last year’s victorious Confederations Cup campaign.
This will not have gone unnoticed by the Germans who began the finals in dynamic form by demolishing Portugal 4-0 but then revealed frailties all over the pitch before coach Joachim Loew gambled successfully on a shake-up of tactics and personnel against France.
Philipp Lahm remains an outstanding rightback, Toni Kroos has roamed midfield in style and Thomas Muller’s ability to find attacking space where none appeared to exist is remarkable. Add the omnipotent goalkeeping of Manuel Neuer and there is no logical reason why Germany cannot condemn the hosts to national, sporting mourning.
Of course, logic and sport are serially disloyal bedfellows. Germany and Brazil both have every reason to be cautiously confident of beating the other. The same does not appear to be true for Argentina and Holland. If one semi-final is bound for the pain of penalties it could be this one, in Sao Paulo, where the World Cup drama opened up back on June 12.
The shootout arrived at the World Cup in 1982 and was needed immediately to resolve a thrilling semi-final in Germany’s favour against France. Germany won a 1990 dispute with England and Brazil saw off Holland that way in 1998. The Dutch, as evidenced in the quarter-final against Costa Rica, appear to have conquered their long-standing shootout nerves.
This is not an encouraging thought for the hordes of Argentinian fans whose ability to find match tickets where none existed rivals Messi’s ability to find space in a crowded penalty box. Argentina fell at the quarter-final stage in 1998, 2006 and 2010 (losing on penalties in 2006).
But then, respective managers Jose Pekerman and Diego Maradona did not invest their faith in Messi as does Alejandro Sabella now. Previously, at World Cups, Messi was either half-ignored or stuck out on the right. Now he is central both to attack, behind main striker Gonzalo Higuain, and to Argentina’s strategy.
Argentina’s early performances were fractured and fractious. They failed to maintain possession with the natural self-confidence of old-time Argentina sides and lacked a commander in midfield. Fernando Gago, expected to guide the attacking effort, fell miserably off form. That left too much resting on the shoulders of anchor Javier Mascherano whose forte is destruction rather than creation.
At least there was always Messi plus the winged arrow of Angel di Maria. Unfortunately, Di Maria tore a thigh muscle in the quarter-final defeat of Belgium and will be badly missed. Striker Sergio Aguero may be returning to fitness but has proved so fragile all this year that rushing him back would be a gamble.
Holland are still smarting, historically speaking, not only from their defeat in the 2010 final but from the nature of their defeat in 1978 when Argentina used every trick in the book (and several that were not) to gain a victorious edge. In Louis van Gaal, they have a coach whose ability to think “on his feet” and vary team and tactics during a match is second to none. He is, almost, a 12th player alongside the outstanding, if controversial, Arjen Robben and his orange cohorts.
One moment of magic from Messi, one chess master’s gambit by Van Gaal, could prove decisive. If the player and the coach cancel each other out, the second semi-final is heading for a shootout.