Team nicknames: Oranje (Orange, also known as The Clockwork Orange) vs. Repre (short for Reprezentacny tim, which means Representative team)
The Netherlands are a frustrating team. When they play well they’re incredibly pleasing to watch, but on a bad day they’re not just terrible, but also play dirty and get into stupid fights on the field and other ridiculous stuff like that. The stereotypical view of the Dutch team is that they play brilliantly early and then fall apart before they can win. This year, though, things might be different. They won all their group games, but were unconvincing until the coach sent on Eljero Elia (named after jazz legend Al Jarreau). Winning while playing poorly is new exciting territory for The Netherlands, so maybe this year they’ll manage to finally go all the way. Their best player, Arjen Robben, has been injured but is now match fit and I have been told that he proved his quality during a short appearance against Cameroon (like a good Icelander I watched Denmark get destroyed by an excellent Japanese team instead of watching Holland’s final game).
Slovakia enter this game as hopeless underdogs, but that was also true against Italy, who they beat 3-2. Slovakia may not have a proud history as a footballing nation independently, but there were plenty of Slovaks on the great Czechoslovakian teams of the past. If Slovakia wins this game it will be the biggest upset of this tournament. The Slovaks were poor against New Zealand, worse against Paraguay, but really turned it up against Italy. If they continue on form they might just stun Holland. They have proved that they can score goals, and the Dutch defense is looking a bit shaky. That said, it would be foolish to bet heavily on the Slovakian team. This doesn’t have the looks of a great game, but it will be interesting to watch, if only to see what kind of form Robben is in. One has to expect Holland to go through, to face either Brazil or Chile in the quarter-finals. That should be a classic.
Brazil vs. Chile
Team nicknames: A Seleção (The Selection) vs. La Roja (The Red One)
A clash of two South American teams, one dour and defensive, the other a helter-skelter attacking side. The metanarrative of football would lead one to believe that the former is Chile and the latter Brazil, but the opposite is true. I tend to get a bit hyperbolic when talking about Brazil. In a heated moment the other day I referred to their style of play as “death football.” There is something terribly galling about watching Brazil play turgid, stodgy football, even though that’s what they’ve been doing, with great success, for the last 20 years. You can’t really argue with two World Cup wins, and I won’t do that here. But the cognitive dissonance of watching the team play in this way while hearing them described as if there’s 11 Pelés on the pitch has worn on my psyche. Thankfully, this year, it finally seems to have dawned on the commentariat that Brazil are boring.
Chile, however, are anything but. Sure, they may commit some outrageous, cynical tackles from time to time (but so does Brazil), but they attack at speed and with intelligence, and if they could just get the damn ball into the net with any kind of regularity, they would’ve emerged out of their group as winners. But they seem to lack composure in front of goal and have had a devil of a time scoring, even though they create chance after chance after chance. All you need to know is that two of their three goals came because of lucky bounces off opposing players. They’re a delight to watch, and tactically they’re different from anyone else at this tournament, playing a 3-3-1-3 system, though they do change it up quite a bit, depending on what the opposition does.
History says that Brazil will win, but I fervently hope that Chile manages to stun them. Either way, the game against Holland should be something else. It’s hard to tell exactly what will happen in the match. Chile are very unpredictable and maybe, just maybe, Brazil will roll back the years and play beautiful attacking football.
Paraguay vs. Japan
Team nicknames: Guaraníes (Guaraní are the indigenous people of Paraguay) vs. Samurai Blue
This promises to be a very interesting game. Both teams have been very good in defense, with dangerous attacking players. Paraguay haven’t surprised, they’re familiar to World Cup watchers, having made it to the last four tournaments, making it out of their group in 1998 and 2002 but falling at the first hurdle. This Paraguay is better, dangerous up front, especially from free kicks and corners, rock solid in the back. They don’t have much in the way of creativity, but they have very good team cohesion, which makes up for it.
Japan has been, more than most, the surprise package at this tournament. They had played well in qualifications, but in warm-up games they had been terrible. Every player has been playing at a high level. In Tulio Tanaka they have one of the best defenders and in Keisuke Honda they have an outstanding forward, who had the best performance of the World Cup, against Denmark. Like many great footballers he looks ungainly when not playing. His walk makes him seem like someone doing an impression of Batman’s foe, The Penguin. But when he’s playing he’s phenomenal, explosive, powerful, intelligent and graceful.
Frankly, I fancy Japan to win this one. They have been playing extremely well, have never been caught flatfooted and have been creative upfront. Paraguay are no slouches, though. They’ll defend well and will always threaten, especially in set pieces. I have a feeling that this will be a closely fought game but that Japan will come out on top.
Spain vs. Portugal
Team nickname: La Furia Roja (The Red Fury) vs. Selecção das Quinas (The Selection of the Five, “five” referring to the shields on the national emblem)
Iberian smackdown. I’m not making any bones about it, I want Spain to go through. Portugal were dreadful against Ivory Coast and Brazil. They do have quality players, e.g. Ronaldo and Coentrão, but they mostly play negative football, the 7-0 thrashing of North Korea aside. They will probably play cagily against Spain, sitting back and seeking to attack on the break. They have yet to concede a goal, and though it will be hard to hold off the excellent Spanish attack, they are a team who could pull it off. The Spanish defense is not exactly impervious, so counterattacks are not a bad strategy, especially because, in theory, they should have a potent offense, but they haven’t delivered except against North Korea.
I’ve talked about my admiration for the Spanish team before. I can’t say that I love them, but I’ll root for them against most teams. At their best their play is mesmerizing, though their best hasn’t been in evidence so far. Their midfield hasn’t fallen into rhythm yet, and they’ve had to rely on David Villa’s standout performances to finish at the top of their group. Without Navas their right flank is fallow, and Villa tends to cut in towards midfield. Nevertheless, they are excellent at holding position and exploiting any fault in their opponents’ defense.
Unless the Spanish find their flow I expect that this game will be decided by moments of individualism. Of those who will enter the field, Villa has had the best tournament, and there’s nothing to suggest that he’ll stop now.
Photo by atomicShed.