Where were you when the World Cup lost its mind?
Friday’s quarterfinal games—Croatia vs. Brazil and Argentina vs. the Netherlands—had everything. Fantastic goals. Near misses. Late equalizers. Bench-clearing … well, not quite brawls, per se. Bench-clearing gangs of guys all standing around wondering if somebody else is going to start something but too afraid of getting kicked out of the semifinals to try it themselves.
Brazil surrendered a late lead and lost on penalties to the indomitable Croatians. Argentina surrendered a late lead and squeaked through during their shootout. The two winners will play each other Tuesday in a game that can’t possibly be any nervier than these two were. Or can it?
Technically, the first 90 minutes of Croatia-Brazil happened. Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic made a number of fine saves to keep Brazil scoreless, but the sense was more of a Brazilian failure than a Croatian success. Brazil wouldn’t score until the final minute of the first period of extra time, when its centerpiece Neymar dropped deep to get the ball in the middle, played consecutive one-twos with Rodrygo and Lucas Paquetá that carried him past five defenders, rode a tackle from Croatian left back Borna Sosa in defiance of all stereotypes of himself, then decided that since no one could shoot past Livakovic, he’d dribble around him instead before roofing a shot from point-blank range.
It was a goal worth waiting 105 minutes for, one stunning moment of close control after another, a tally worthy of Brazil’s and Neymar’s reputation, even if they had left it late.
Argentina didn’t need so much time, or so complicated a sequence. Instead, Lionel Messi—aka Carl Friedrich Gauss in cleats—got the ball just inside the final third and wrapped an impossible pass around Nathan Aké and between Virgil van Dijk and Daley Blind to right back Nahuel Molina, who finished the chance.
It was a miniature golf shot, not a soccer move that anyone should be capable of doing on the run and fitting it into the exact window of time required. Messi would score Argentina’s second through a penalty kick in the second half, and that seemed to be that.
Brazil, holding a one-goal lead against a Croatian team that had barely threatened the entire game, seemed 15 comfortable minutes from the semifinals. Surely it wouldn’t do anything rash, like fall asleep on its narrow lead. They have tortoises and hares in Brazil, don’t they? Only the most careless of teams would, say, leave only four men back on defense to deal with Croatian counters just four minutes from full time. This Brazil had learned from its past mistakes. This Brazil was going to live up to its tag of favorites. This Brazil would never do anything that stu—
Well. They’re gonna want that one back, aren’t they?
Argentina at least made the Netherlands work a little bit harder for it. Dutch manager Louis van Gaal, a legend and a tactical genius, decided his best way back into the game was to load the box with big fellas and kick it high toward them, the soccer equivalent of cavemen fighting with clubs and rocks. And it worked! Substitute striker Wout Weghorst, 6-foot, 6-inches tall, headed one back in the 83rd minute. His second, tying goal, scored in the 11th minute of added time, came off a set-piece that had him using his size in a different way: to post up Argentina’s Enzo Fernández and get room to turn and fire one home. What if the Netherlands’ best athletes played basketball?
Neither game was over. Theoretically Brazil could have advanced via the penalty shootout. Theoretically, its blushes might have been spared. In the real world, however, it never stood a chance. Livakovic saved the first Brazilian penalty. Four consecutive Croatians sunk theirs. The defender Marquinhos, the same player who Bruno Petkovic’s shot deflected off for the goal, hit the post with the fourth Brazilian penalty. Here lies Brazil, killed by the sudden and devastating shift of momentum.
If you do believe in momentum, then Argentina at least had time to seize it back during the 30-minute extra time period. It hit the post in the last minute of the game, and missed narrowly twice before that. The game stayed tense; there were a total of 48 fouls, 14 yellow cards and one scuffle after the ball was cleared after the play directly into the Dutch bench area, but the Netherlands didn’t manage much after its late equalizer. Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez would save the first two Dutch penalties, but after a late scare, substitute striker Lautaro Martínez sealed the win with the final Argentina kick.
Jubilation on two sides, anguish on two others. The Fox Soccer Twitter account sent at least six specifically of Messi celebrating after the match, and no fewer than five devoted to Neymar crying. Here instead for cleansing purposes is a Croatian kid from one of the player’s families going over to console Neymar:
Now these two battle-tested, potentially exhausted sides, losing finalists at each of the past two tournaments, will face off in the World Cup semifinal. Croatia have taken seven of their past eight major tournament knockout games to extra time, and won all of those that have taken place at the World Cup. Argentina have now won the most shootouts of any nation in World Cup history. If there’s any team that can grind right alongside Croatia and maybe prevail in the end, whether it’s the hard way at the end of 120 minutes or through a little bit of Messi magic, it’s Argentina. If there’s one that won’t be intimidated by Argentina and its main man’s mystique, it’s Croatia. Let’s see who blinks first.