SAO PAULO — Three weeks ago, Jurgen Klinsmann predicted his U.S. team wouldn’t win the World Cup. And he was right.
So who is he picking in the final?
“Brazil is the No. 1 name to mention,” Klinsmann said Wednesday, “because of their talent (and) their home advantage.”
Maybe it should be the home disadvantage, because Brazil, the pre-tournament favorite, clearly has been feeling the pressure of expectations. The country has spent $11.5 billion — a World Cup record — to put on this tournament, and for most Brazilians that will be a huge waste of money if its national team doesn’t win the title.
Brazil has hardly looked like a champion, though, sputtering through group play, then barely surviving a second-round game with Chile that went to penalty kicks.
And so it goes in a World Cup that is still waiting for a dominant team to emerge. Although all eight quarterfinalists won their groups and four teams — Belgium, the Netherlands, Colombia and Argentina — have won all four of their games, only Colombia has done so comfortably.
Belgium hasn’t scored before the 70th minute in any game and got just two goals from 38 shots — the most shots in a World Cup game in 40 years — in its overtime win Tuesday against the United States. Argentina and Germany also needed overtime to advance to the quarterfinals and the Netherlands beat Mexico with a penalty-kick goal deep in stoppage time.
All told, six of the eight second-round games were decided in stoppage time or after.
Yet most of the wins were almost one-sided compared with those of Brazil and Costa Rica, both of whom had to go to penalty-kick shootouts. Costa Rica’s victory over Greece made it just the third CONCACAF team in history — after Mexico and the U.S. — to reach a World Cup quarterfinal in the modern era.
Costa Rica will next meet the Netherlands, the 2010 runner-up, on Saturday, the same day Argentina and Lionel Messi will meet punchless Belgium.
“There were a lot of even matches. There is no difference between teams that have tradition and world titles and the rest of the teams,” Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said. Matches are being decided on penalties, in the final minutes, on mistakes.”
It’s the kind of parity that makes for great drama — and perhaps some surprises too.
Colombia, Brazil’s next opponent, has quietly put together the tournament’s best resume, outscoring opponents, 11-2, and playing just one game that was decided by less than two goals. And it has done that without its best player, striker Radamel Falcao, who led the team with nine goals in World Cup qualifying but has missed this tournament with a knee injury.
James Rodriguez has stepped up in his absence to score a World Cup-leading five goals. But Colombia is hardly one-dimensional, because none of the final eight teams have allowed fewer goals.
That makes it a dangerous test today for a Brazilian team now surrounded by doubts — and one that has been bounced in the quarterfinals in the last two World Cups.
Germany is another struggling team that looks ripe for an upset. After scoring four goals in a tournament-opening rout of Portugal, Germany has just three scores in regulation time since then. And today it gets France, which scored eight goals in its first two games and gave up none in its last two.
After France’s embarrassing mutiny against coach Raymond Domenech four years ago in South Africa, current coach Didier Deschamps emphasized character in putting together this team, leaving the likes of Manchester City’s Samir Nasri home. They even took the absence of Franck Ribery, out with a back injury, in stride.
“In the French team, the people talk to each other and I think it is their job to keep that momentum going and to keep that atmosphere together,” Deschamps said. “But they are still smiling, they are happy to be here.”
Then Deschamps added a final thought the other seven coaches in the quarterfinals would surely agree with.
“As long as we are winning matches,” he said, “I am sure everything will be fine.”