With short-time visitors like the United States and Mexico gone, the World Cup in South Africa has been whittled down to eight teams, with still a significant number of former champions left in the mix. The tournament has been seen its share of great goals, some dull play, a lot of noise, and more than a few bad calls from the officials. In other words, it's pretty much like any other international soccer tournament.
For the first time ever, the final four teams in the tournament could all come from South America. In the history of the World Cup, only two teams outside of South America and Europe have ever made it to the semifinals, the USA in 1930 and South Korea in 2002.
The quarterfinals start on Friday morning at 7 am PT with a match in Port Elizabeth between Brazil and the Netherlands. Brazil shut out Chile 3-0 in its second round match and the Dutch beat Slovakia 2-1. The two teams last met in the World Cup in 1998 in Marseilles, when Brazil won a penalty kick tiebreaker, 4-2, in the semifinals. The Dutch haven't beaten Brazil since Johann Cruyff's heroics in 1974.
Later on Friday, at 11:30 am in Johannesburg, one surprise team will make it to the semifinals as Ghana takes on Uruguay.
Ghana is the last African team standing in the tournament. The Black Stars eliminated the U.S. for the second straight time in the World Cup with a 2-1 win on Saturday. Uruguay beat South Korea 2-1 on Saturday.
Uruguay used to be a dominant power in international soccer, winning two Olympic gold medals and two World Cups. However, Uruguay hasn't been this far in the tournament since 1970. Joe Posnanski wrote about Uruguay's soccer history and how it affects the team today.
Saturday morning brings what should be the most interesting of all the quarterfinals. At 7 am in Cape Town, Argentina will face Germany. Argentina has cruised through its first four games, obliterating Nigeria, South Korea, and Greece in group play, and then beating Mexico 3-1 in the second round.
Germany went 2-1 in group play, losing to Serbia. But, the Germans sent England home with a 4-1 win that rendered the bad call on a potential English goal moot.
Germany knocked Argentina out of the tournament at this stage in 2006 with a win in a penalty kick tiebreaker, 4-2. Germany also beat Argentina, 1-0, in the 1990 final in a foul-marred game. Argentina beat Germany, 3-2, in the 1986 final.
The 1986 final marked the last time that Argentina defeated a Western European team in regulation in the World Cup. Argentina's voluble coach, Diego Maradona, has started a war of words with German players Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lamm, over Saturday's match. Saturday's match should be both exciting and contentious.
Even if Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina all win, getting a fourth team from South America into the semifinals will be tough. The last quarterfinal will be on Saturday at 11:30 am in Johannesburg. Spain will take on Paraguay. The latter has conceded but one goal the whole tournament, but has only scored three times and needed a penalty kick tiebreaker to beat Japan in the second round. Spain has come back from a first game loss to Switzerland to win its last three matches, knocking out Portugal, 1-0, in the second round.
Paraguay's best hope for a win Saturday will be getting the Spanish to fall asleep. Literally. The Spanish should dominate possession in the match, and should be able to beat Paraguay barring a defensive lapse.
I'm expecting a final four that would match Brazil versus Uruguay and Argentina versus Spain. Of course, I'm probably not as good as picking matches as an octopus at a German aquarium.
* Insert Portuguese expression of shock and dismay here! The Netherlands shock Brazil 2-1 in the morning game on Friday. It was the first time Brazil had lost a match after leading at halftime. Prior to today, Brazil had won 35 of 37 matches they had led at halftime and the other two were draws.
** In an ending that almost defied belief, Uruguay defeated Ghana 4-2 in a penalty kick tiebreaker after playing to a 1-1 tie after 120 minutes. Ghana had a chance to win on the last kick of extra time after being awarded a penalty after Uruguay's Luis Suarez deliberately knocked what would have been a goal out of the net with his hands. Suarez was given a red card. Asamaoh Gyan of Ghana hit the crossbar with his try, and Uruguay moved on to the semifinals for the first time since 1970.
*** So, I'm completely wrong about South American dominance. Germany dominated Argentina, winning 4-0. Two goals for Miroslav Klose, along with ones for Thomas Muller (in the 3rd minute) and Arne Freidrich. Klose now has 14 goals in World Cup play, one behind the alltime leader Ronaldo of Brazil.
**** Spain advanced to the semifinals for the first time in its history, beating Paraguay 1-0 on a David Villa goal in the 83rd minute. Spanish keeper Iker Casillas saved a penalty kick and made a pair of tough saves in the final minutes to keep Paraguay off the board.