Greatness may finally present itself

Brazil's soccer players Kaka (right), Luis Fabiano and Daniel Alves (left) attend a training...

Brazil's soccer players Kaka (right), Luis Fabiano and Daniel Alves (left) attend a training session in Johannesburg on June 30, 2010. (PAULO WHITAKER/Reuters)

JAMES LAWTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:10 PM ET

JOHANNESBURG - Now we have come to the point and the heart of this sprawling and on too many occasions mediocre World Cup.

Now we will see whether it has been worth all the rancour and the heartache - and whether England, France and Italy were ejected from the overture of a great symphony or merely provided the first crippling evidence that an over-blown honky-tonk has all the time been about promises that cannot be fulfilled. One thing, at least, is certain. The real examination starts today.

Greatness, the true variety that is the lifeblood of the world's most signicant sports event, has not yet touched this 17th tournament but there is a very good chance it will come along on the warm and exhilarating wind blowing in against the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth.

Brazil, who these last few weeks have threatened to wrap their huge tentacles around all opposition under the remorseless prompting its coach Dunga, is certainly braced for the possibility.

They concede the danger represented by the Netherlands in the quarterfinal, and in no ordinary way.

Juan, who has looked a little more imposing at the heart of defence with each appearance here, says he expects his fiercest challenge -- and that no team here seems to understand the Brazilian way better than the Dutch.

"In many way, they are the football nation closest to us," says Juan. "They like to lull you and strike. Their goal against Slovakia was brilliant, Sneijder played the ball 50 yards to Robben, and he finished perfectly. When I saw it I turned to Lucio (his equally formidable partner in central defence) and I said, 'you know, we cannot be sleepy - not for a moment."

For the moment, this match throws up the most intriguing and maybe intoxicating possibilities thus far, but when the quarterfinal action is over there remains, whatever happens in Port Elizabeth, the most thrilling prospect.

It is that at least one of the survivors, which the odds insist will be Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Spain, will have both the talent and the level of opposition to make this the best World Cup in the 24 years since Diego Maradona performed the first half of an astonishing double achievement he is promising conclude here as the coach and the inspiration of Lionel Messi's Argentina.

Messi has the same potential Maradone unfurled so unforgettably in the Azteca stadium in Mexico in 1986. He can prove that he is the player of players, an artist of unrivalled will and execution.

Yet all of it poised so beautifully now that the dross is removed.

Some things never change. The Dutch are rowing again over a clash of egos between Sneijdner and Robin van Persie. The Brazilians ache to re-state, eight years after their last triumph, their status as the greatest football nation the world will ever know. The Germans lurk in ambush mode as they face the team of Maradona, who once more has one foot in heaven and one in hell. Spain fret that for all their innate talent, and sometimes sublime skill, it may have only partly repaired a terrible fault line of under-achievement when they won the European title in Vienna two years ago.

We will know the answers to all of these questions soon enough but meanwhile certain assumptions can be made.

One is that Paraguay will tomorrow come to the end of their contribution to what may well prove a dramatic renaissance of South American football. It has displayed considerable character and talent while fighting through to their first quarter-final but if its opponents Spain, who is likely to give Cesc Fabregas his first starting chance to prove that he has a place alongside Iniesta and Xavi, have questions to resolve, this is not a match in which they will be posed most severely. Spain, surely, have their first moment of truth in Cape Town against Argentina in Durban next week.

Yet the Germans indeed bring menace to the edge of Argentina's fears. Their defence may look fragile against men like Messi and Tevez and Higuain but we have already seen the character of Bastian Scheweinsteiger and the counter-attacking flair of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller. The Germans believe they can bring some formidable psychological strength to another quarter-final which could help lift the tournament a little closer to the stars. They did, after all, produce oodles of the stuff when beating Argentina at the same stage four years ago. However, Maradona was in the stand as a spectator not the one-man evangelical torrent who will berampaging again Saturday. More significant still, Messi was on the bench that day the Argentines reacted so violently to their demise. On Saturday, he will again be at the centre of the football earth.

Spain against Argentina, Brazil against Uruquay, is a semifinal lineup that can indeed deliver us to a climax of quality superior to anything we have known since the Brazil of Pele and Tostao and Gerson overwhelmed Italy 40 years ago.

James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.


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