I started this chapter of my Brazilian adventure sitting on the step of a cafe across the road from the Maracana. The authorities, in their wisdom, encouraged the media to get there early, mindful of the ring of steel around the stadium and the road closures.
However, they also decreed that there would be no media access until four hours before kick-off. This is a very bureaucratic country, so we early risers had to seek sanctuary until the clock ticked around. Sadly, there was no hot beverage on offer. There is an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, but there was none in this cafe. Nor any seats; hence the step.
Most of the organisation has been satisfactory and very cheerful. Better-run previous Finals in Europe came up nowhere near with the smiles. The traffic fears have been allayed by the clever ploy of making matchdays holidays in each particular city. It is also a holiday every time Brazil play, another clever ruse to make sure the whole of this vast nation is backing the home team.
However, on Thursday, an overpass collapsed in Belo Horizonte and the structural deficiencies of the World Cup claimed more victims. When we talk about this being the greatest World Cup ever, these issues should be factored in.
The tragic news came on the second of the rest days which - after such a remarkable set of second-round matches - were dragging terribly. I am off to Belo Horizonte soon for the first semi-final and may well see the damage first hand.
The quarter-finals also brought a dose of reality after all the romance. Two 1pm kick-offs in the heat of the day again spoiled the energy levels and I hope I am not being disloyal to European broadcasting by suggesting that viewers would rather watch full-blooded contests at more anti-social hours than exhausted players doing their best in front of a television audience with its supper on its knee.
As it was, both Germany and Argentina scored early and were able to hang on to their leads. Neither France nor Belgium could find the extra energy needed to fight back.
The biggest headlines of course came from Brazil’s aggressive contest with Colombia. The loss of Neymar is a great blow to the country and the competition. He has lived up to his billing and gave Brazil their one consistently creative force. Yet in a game of so many fouls, there were bound to be casualties. To some extent, Brazil reaped what they sowed.
David Luiz scored again and will be even more important now that his fellow defender Thiago Silva is suspended from the semi-final. He will probably take over the captaincy too and given his play and his positive personality, it makes you wonder why Chelsea chose to sell him to Paris Saint-Germain. His comforting of the distraught James Rodriguez on the final whistle against Colombia will be an enduring image long after the trophy is presented here. The World Cup’s Freddie Flintoff - Brett Lee moment!
The Netherlands made it Europe 2 South America 2 in another match more vibrant because of the later kick-off. Keylor Navas gave another astonishing display in Costa Rica’s goal, but could not reach any of the Dutch penalties.
Instead, Louis Van Gaal came up trumps by bringing on his substitute goalkeeper, Newcastle United’s Tim Krul, just prior to the end of extra-time as a better penalty-saving prospect. Van Gaal’s faith was justified and Tim’s saves meant Manchester United having to wait yet another week before their new manager arrives at Old Trafford.
None of the 12 knock-out ties so far were decided by wide margins. Six needed extra-time and three of those went to penalties. What is making this such a great World Cup is its evenness of competition. Even with just four nations still standing, there is no overwhelming favourite.
It promises to be a great fight to the finish at the Maracana, where incidentally the bureaucracy was breached on Friday.
Taking pity on the lengthy queue, the authorities did open the media centre early. From my perch on the pavement, it looked another step in the right direction at the 2014 World Cup.
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