It’s a knockout. And, as the canopy of shade creeps diagonally across pitches from Manaus in the north to Porto Alegre in the south, we have borne witness to the birth of the “cooling break”, whose very name refreshes those of us at home, where temperatures are not in the thirties and humidity a lot less than 66%. The hallucinations constantly threatened if the players don’t rehydrate are all happening to us, the armchair spectators. With the group stages over and my Guardian World Cup Guide fastidiously spidered with numbers, we’re at that point where every match counts. Even, on a low level, Costa Rica Greece, which I forewent last night in order to catch up on Glastonbury, but turned out to have gone to dratted penalties (5-3 to Costa Rica). Aside from the sight of Adrian Chiles in tight shorts with his legs wide apart under the garden table last night on ITV, during the channel’s unique on-the-patio bit before the game (he dresses to the left, cock fans), there’s little to complain about. Suárez is long gone – subsequently joined, connectedly, by Uruguay, after a sound thrashing by Colombia. The narrative (and I love a narrative, as has been pointed out to me on Twitter) is that one superstar is gone, and another is born: 22-year-old striker James Rodriguez, whose 29th-minute volley is being talked about as the goal of the tournament – and that’s with stiff competition.
As already established, the post-England phase of any international cup is always my favourite part. No more residual stress about whether or not “our boys” can prove, or improve, their world ranking, and the sheer joy of being able to cheer on whichever team I like, switching allegiance mid-game if I fancy. I do not blame the whole of Uruguay for the developmental and denial issues of Suárez, although the shine did come off them as a result of his toothmanship and when Colombia went one up with That Goal, I pinned my allegiance to their yellow shirts, perhaps in subliminal solidarity with the hickey-marked Italy, or with Gloria from Modern Family.
Either way, poster boy Rodriguez, who’s now scored in all four of his World Cup games, delivered a magic moment when he chested, then left-footed a 25-yarder past the Uruguay goalie. To quote from the write-up by the BBC’s Phil McNulty, who will have seen and described more goals than I ever will do, “It was the most perfect combination of technique and talent, drawing gasps from around this iconic stadium when it was replayed on the four giant screens that hang from the roof of the vast bowl.”
What a game Brazil Colombia will be on Friday (Colombia’s first ever quarter final). Another serious South American derby, especially now that Brazil have recovered their mojo. Their victory against Chile in the first knockout match may have been decided on penalties – just checking: nobody wants a World Cup match to go to penalties do they? – but it was no kickabout in the 120 minutes preceding.
A goal apiece from Brazil’s Alan Davies-haired David Luis and Chile’s Sanchez evened things out in the first half-hour, but the turning point came in the second half: a disallowed goal from Hulk, who appeared to use his bicep before getting one past Claudio Bravo, an anatomical subtlety identified and penalised by brave British ref Howard Webb, whose shiny head always makes me think of my last editor at the NME, and my own Uncle Phil, who was a professional referee in his prime, which seemed supercool to me as a boy. (We witnessed him spraying the medicinal-smelling Ralgex onto his legs before a game, which was an eye-opener. It was like he operated in another world and yet he was Uncle Phil.) Webb was at least balanced: he denied a penalty appeal by both sides. Much for the pundits to unpick at half-time.
Those penalties. It was hot out there and even those used to the stifling humidity and wilting temperatures didn’t really want to play on for another 30 minutes. But there it was. Somebody must always go home empty handed from now on. Or empty-armed in Hulk’s case. If this game had been blocked and written in a writers’ room, then Hulk, so ambiguously denied his second, would-be-decisive goal, would have scored Brazil’s winning penalty, thus redeeming himself, and allowing Howard Webb to get home from work safely and sleep more easily. As it was, Hulk’s shot was saved by the estimable Bravo – bravo! – but it was Julio Cesar’s denial of Sanchez’s penalty kick – hail, Cesar! – that sealed it at 3-2 for the hosts. Tense, yes, a ridiculous in-out way to decide a match so steeped in chance and subtlety, but the shootout was not without nuance: Neymar’s mindfuck shuffle was quality entertainment.
In our house, we’re still unable to get over the image of Holland’s star striker as a character in Game Of Thrones: Iron Robin. But this is a minor impediment to the enjoyment of watching him lead a seriously below-par team to a squeaked victory against my favourites Mexico. I decided they were my favourites during the first half, when they gave as good as they got and their first quarter final in 28 years seemed a delicious possibility. I love to watch Holland pass, but they couldn’t break the Mexican wall. If I had more analytical skills, I’d tell you precisely why like Glenn Hoddle did at half-time when it was still 0-0, but I find it difficult to follow him. It was 38.8C out there, and fans unlucky enough to be sat in the sun literally abandoned their seats. If both teams had agreed only to play in the shade throughout, I would have taken my hat off to them, and then put it back on again for protection. It may have explained the Dutch failure to convert. The Netherlands is not a hot country, and the orangemen (sorry) who aren’t bald, have shaggy dog hair – neither ideal in a bake-off.
I know this much, Mexico’s keeper Guillermo Ochoa was the man of the match. Commentator Sam Matterface may have mocked him for looking like something out of an “80s fitness video” (he favours a thick headband to keep his head looking like a tied-up bunch of fresh carrots), but his quick-witted ability saw a parade of Dutch chances punched, slapped or body-bounced off the line. When Mexico’s Dos Santos put them one-up at the start of the second half from the fabled 25 yards (I don’t even know what a yard looks like), things really hotted up. Holland didn’t equalise until the 88th minute – despite Iron Robin’s repeated attempts to lie down in the penalty area and feign injury – but the man we call V2 Schneider (but is actually called Wesley Sneijder) turned it around in style. Hallucinatory extra time seemed inevitable, but Robin finally had his way, earned a penalty after a Marquez trip-up, and Easter Island-browed substitute Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored the winner from the spot. As you will see from this picture, the wrong player is called Hulk.
Because I remained a loyal Mexico supporter to the end, telling anyone who’d listen, including our cat, that they deserved to go through, I was crestfallen by Holland’s zero-hour comeback, as juicy and dramatic as it was. Also, as with the Oscars, I like surprises and dislike sure things. But with whole sections of the crowd burnt to a crisp like extras in Threads and welded to their plastic seats like puddles of face paint, Holland celebrated not just getting through to the quarter finals, but to a potentially comfy tie against either Costa Rica or Greece (it turned out to be the former).
On with the games.