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Riveting Football in Rio

July 07, 2014 20:03 IST

Riveting Football in Rio

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Mauktik Kulkarni

Will the German discipline take them to the final? Will Brazil be able to overcome the loss of Neymar Jr.? Will Argentina move its game to the next level for the semi-final? Or would the Dutch shrug off a bad day at work to reach the final again and get a shot at redemption? The best place to find out, says Mauktik Kulkarni, is the Fan Fest on Copacabana beach.

Roaming around the streets of Rio, it is easy to see why Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai should be declared sister cities. Both are urban sprawls of developing countries; huge skyscrapers dotting the skyline and huge slums that house the poor and migrants.

Like Marine Drive in Mumbai, there are the fancy fashion outlets and swanky restaurants lining the promenade of Copacabana beach. But you are never too far from abandoned lots, poverty and petty crime.

 The Oscar-winning City of God captured the slum life of Rio, and Slumdog Millionaire exposed the underbelly of child labour in Mumbai.

When it comes to sports, just like cricket in Mumbai, the passion for football here transcends all class barriers. The Wankhede stadium played host to the cricket World Cup and the FIFA World Cup final will be played at the Maracana in Rio. Notwithstanding the injuries to Neymar Jr. of Brazil and Angel di Maria of Argentina, every Brazilian wants to see Brazil vs Argentina at the Maracana.

The rivalry is comparable to, or even bigger than, India-Pakistan or England-Australia in cricket. It was just a few decades ago that Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world based on per-capita income. Fueled by the strong economy, Argentines considered themselves as Europeans stuck in Latin America. They carried that air of superiority at all social, political and economic forums. In 2001, all that came crashing.  A series of sovereign debt crises since then have made Argentina a basket case in Latin America, with another crisis looming on the horizon.

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Image: Argentina fans celebrate their victory over Belgium at Copacabana Beach
Photographs: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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Riveting Football in Rio

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Mauktik Kulkarni

Going by the local opinion in Brazil, the Argentine air of superiority has not gone away.  Even in the realm of football, they consider Diego Maradona to be better than Pele and believe that they will soon catch up with Brazil’s tally of five World Cup trophies. With Lionel Messi leading the attack and a packed Maracana, it might just happen in Rio de Janeiro this week.

The best place to watch the match, though, is Copacabana beach. Consistently rated as one of the best beaches in the world, this 4-kilometre stretch of white sand is some of the most sought after real estate in the world. And FIFA has set up Fan Fest bang in the middle of the beach. Gigantic TV screens are set up for public viewing and entry is free to everyone. Rowdy, passionate, knowledgeable, young, old, all are welcomed with open arms and open beer cans.

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Image: Fans react during the Germany-Algeria match at FIFA Fan Fest at Copacabana Beach
Photographs: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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Riveting Football in Rio

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Mauktik Kulkarni

The first quarter-final between Germany and France was a defensive gridlock rather than a goal fest.  A perfect header by Mats Hummels in the 13th minute gave Germany the lead and they spent the rest of the match doggedly protecting it.

For France, Mathieu Valbuena and Karim Benzema had a few great looks. However, control and discipline by Germany ensured that there was no period of sustained pressure from France.

At this level of the tournament, Germany has been victorious so often for so long that France would have had to come up with an extraordinary performance to win, which they could not.

The real surprise of this round was Brazil’s victory over Colombia. Neymar Jr. and Oscar have shown flashes of brilliance in this World Cup, but Brazil had not displayed the on-field magic that it is known for.

On the other hand, with James Rodriguez, Juan Guillermo Cuadrado and Teofilo Guttierrez had shown amazing consistency, coordinating attacks and scoring goals in all their matches.

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Image: James Rodriguez of Colombia celebrates scoring against Colombia
Photographs: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

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Riveting Football in Rio

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Mauktik Kulkarni

For the quarter-final, though, it was Brazil that came out with its A-game. After the first-half goal by Brazil’s Thiago Silva, it felt as if Colombia would respond quickly.  However, solid defense by Marcelo Vieira da Silva Jr., David Luiz and Thiago Silva ensured lack of rhythm in the Colombian midfield and attack.

When the beautiful free-kick by David Luiz in the second half extended Brazil’s lead to 2-0, bringing back memories of Roberto Carlos, the result was a foregone conclusion.  Rodriguez won a penalty kick for Colombia to convert it and keep them in the hunt. But the Colombians succumbed to the pressure of trying to overcome a 0-2 deficit in a World Cup quarter-final.

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Image: David Luiz of Brazil
Photographs: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

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Riveting Football in Rio

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Mauktik Kulkarni

Argentina, the other Latin American giant that has been found wanting, finally conjured up a performance that did justice to their star-studded line-up. Gonzalo Higuain announced his arrival at the party by a beautiful turning finish in the first half and a great run in the second.

Angel di Maria had to bow out early in the first half due to injury and is doubtful for the upcoming matches, but Lionel Messi had a great match, routinely tackling two or three Belgian defenders, thereby putting others in open positions. He should have scored in the second half and the credit goes to Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Curtois for keeping the score line 1-0.

However, if Sergio Aguero is back in the starting line-up for the semi-final, Argentina will be a serious offensive threat even in the absence of Angel di Maria.

Belgium matched Argentina’s speed and Marouane Felliani and Romelu Lukaku had several good chances. In the second half, it looked like the flurry of offensive activity by Belgium will get them an equalizer. But they lost out to some great saves by Sergio Romero.

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Image: Lionel Messi of Argentina
Photographs: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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The Netherlands has been so dominant in this tournament that virtually everyone had written off the Costa Ricans before kick-off. The Costa Ricans spent the first half and most of the second half being on the defensive. In spite of playing creative offense, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie could not put the Dutch on the board. Wesley Sneijder had a couple of great finishing opportunities as well, but as the match moved to extra-time, tables had turned and it was the Costa Ricans who started dominating the proceedings.  After the match moved to penalty shoot-out, though, the Dutch displayed their big-match temperament to book the last semi-final berth.

Will the German discipline take them to the final? Will Brazil be able to overcome the loss of Neymar Jr.? Would Argentina move its game to the next level for the semi-final?  Or would the Dutch shrug off a bad day at work to reach the final again and get a shot at redemption?

One thing is for sure: The best place to find out is the Fan Fest® on Copacabana beach.


Image: Netherlands celebrate after defeating Costa Rica in their quarter-final match
Photographs: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

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