World Cup: Many more tears have still to flow

Vincent Kompany celebrates after Belgiums thrilling last-16 defeat of the USA in the Arena Fonte Nova. Picture: APVincent Kompany celebrates after Belgiums thrilling last-16 defeat of the USA in the Arena Fonte Nova. Picture: AP
Vincent Kompany celebrates after Belgiums thrilling last-16 defeat of the USA in the Arena Fonte Nova. Picture: AP
ONE of the advantages of watching the World Cup on Brazilian television is that they do not immediately cut away from the pitch at the end to the Brazilian Adrian Chiles in the studio (actually, another advantage is that there is no Brazilian Adrian Chiles).

Instead, the cameras linger on the players engaging with each other at the end. It offers a fascinating insight into what they have felt about the match in which they have just taken part.

On Tuesday, after the breathless match between Belgium and the United States had finished, there was little obvious celebration; just a mingling in the centre circle of competitors who clearly had enormous respect for each other and, you hope, a realisation they had contributed to another excellent evening of entertainment, one that included a superhuman display in the United States goal.

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Vincent Kompany, the Belgium skipper, continued this theme of honour among rivals when he later tweeted: “just two words, Tim Howard”.

Sometimes you wonder whether the players realise they are participating in something so special. Of course, to a huge degree, they are the ones ensuring that it is being proposed as the greatest World Cup since 1982, perhaps of all time. As much as the atmosphere has helped, and the stadiums have turned out to be more than acceptable in the end, no-one would be rushing to acclaim he tournament if the games themselves had been mired in negativity. Fortunately, that has been far from the case.

Even though three of eight last 16 matches finished 0-0 after 90 minutes, the 154 goals scored so far in Brazil have already surpassed the 2010 tournament in South Africa. But it is not simply goals that have distinguished this World Cup.

Another mark of quality is the intriguing fact that, for the first time since the World Cup was converted into an eight-group format, all the group winners have qualified for the last eight. This suggests a vibrant tournament has the quarter-finals it deserves, although who would be complaining had the United States, Algeria or even Chile, at the expense of the hosts, made it through? But this does seem to establish that consistent excellence is being rewarded. It underlines how momentum is building towards the next batch of four games to be played tomorrow and Saturday.

So here’s a toast to the players. They are the ones providing the lung-busting efforts, in often extremely difficult conditions. One of the abiding memories of Belgium’s 2-1 victory over the United States is the sweat that splashed off the players as they tackled each other; no-one stayed down longer than they had to, there was a naivety about it which was quite refreshing.

The stars, too, have turned up, with Lionel Messi at the forefront. Many, it seemed, were almost wanting him to fail in this tournament so they could return to those specious arguments about him not being as good as Maradona, or Pele.

But there he was on Tuesday, running again and again at the Swiss defence, never giving up and providing the devastating assist from which Angel Di Maria scored the winning goal. No-one has worked harder.

Then there is Neymar, another whom people seem to delight in seeing struggle and yet who, with the pressure very firmly on his young shoulders, has scored four times so far.

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On Saturday against Chile he found things a little harder but even then, as many here in 
Brazil noticed and have commented on, he was seen communicating in Portuguese the message to his team-mates: ‘just give me one more ball, one more ball is all I need’. Of course, it wasn’t all he needed.

Again and again Chile defenders were on his toes, at his back. However, after almost hirpling to the spot, he converted the crucial fifth penalty before later breaking down in tears on the turf. Oh yes, there have been a lot of tears, another ingredient of memorable World Cups. It’s a good bet there will be many more between now and next Sunday night.

Strangely, of all the eight teams still left in the competition, there is an argument that can be made which identifies the hosts as being the least impressive. Ahead of Brazil’s clash with Colombia, who could claim to be the side who have performed with most distinction, 
it is possible to sense serious trepidation.

In Porto Alegre, a city deep in gaucho territory which looks and feels as though it should have more in common with the cattle drives of Argentina than it does the sun and samba of Rio, they are fearing the prospect of a final against Argentina, because it would be too much to bear to lose, as they fear they would.

However, there is also a feeling that making it as far as the final in Maracana might be as much as Brazil can hope for. More will be revealed tomorrow; even a day seems more than long enough to have to wait.