The king is dead, long live the new king. Neutral fans of the "beautiful game" everywhere can only be saddened by Brazil's exit from the tournament. The only problem, of course, is that aside from a mesmerizing 45-minute spell against Japan, this year's edition of Brazil was not quite the juggernaut people had expected.
Therein lies the real problem in this year's World Cup -- Brazil hasn't been the only team affected by a strange malaise. Truth be told, no team really has stood out so far in this tournament, and that's less a reflection of parity than it is the simple fact that on the whole, the teams in this tournament have been fairly bland so far.
Having said that, we're down to the final four (Germany, Italy, Portugal and France) and the European hex continues to live on. In the six tournaments played in Europe since 1958 (when Brazil became the only non-European team to win a World Cup played on European soil), only three non-European teams have even reached the semifinals.
Italy vs. Germany
For sheer subplot, this game between two traditional powers grades out about a 9 on the Richter scale. It's all here: corruption, violence, bulletin-board material, proud pedigrees, nationalistic pride and eerie team-of-destiny analogies.
There's definitely no love lost between these two countries. Last Wednesday, German newsweekly Der Spiegel published a satirical World Cup-related column on its Web site about the Azzurri titled "Oiled up and greasy" that referred to Italians as "parasitical forms of life" and Italian men as "mummy's boys." Needless to say, the Italian media and team weren't impressed.
As defender Alessandro Nesta noted to reporters: "They criticize us for how we are, but then they want to dress and eat like us. There is a bit of envy."
Add that both countries have been tainted in the past year by serious match-fixing scandals that have blemished both of their footballing reputations, and you can argue that both sides need to win this World Cup more than ever.
Is this a team of destiny? The Italians certainly seem to think so, pointing out a number of strange portents and coincidences between this year's team and the country's 1982 World Cup champions. For a start, both teams had to deal with match-fixing scandals disrupting preparations and tournament play. In '82, it was Paolo Rossi returning from a custodial sentence for match fixing; in 2006, it has been the ongoing Serie A investigation into alleged improprieties by some of Italy's top clubs. If that weren't enough to convince people, Italy also drew 1-1 with Switzerland in a friendly on the eve of both the '82 and '06 World Cup.
Adding to the hoopla, in both '82 and '06, Italy scored an own goal and had to settle for a 1-1 draw in the group stages against a team it was heavily favored to beat. In 1982, Fulvio Collovati put the ball through his own net against Peru. And in 2006, Cristian Zaccardo scored an own goal against the U.S.
What does all this mean? Absolutely nothing, of course; the game will be decided on the field, and here's where it gets interesting. Italian coach Marcello Lippi has used a different lineup and different formation for every game so far -- although reports suggest he'll be using the same 4-3-2-1 lineup against Germany that he deployed against Ukraine. So far in this tourney, Italy has been steady but not spectacular.
It could be argued that the performance against Ukraine was the best so far by the Italians, yet a cynic also could point out that it came against arguably the weakest team the Italians have faced. The only thing I'd take away from that game is that it was critical for Italy to get striker Luca Toni back on track, and with Toni's two goals in that game, it's safe to say his confidence has been restored. Similarly, the Azzurri's hopes continue to hinge on the play of Francesco Totti, who is still far short of his usual self, yet managed two assists against Ukraine.
When everything is clicking right, Italy has a unique combination of playmakers. The deep-lying Andrea Pirlo (quietly having a superb tournament) links the defense and midfield, while Totti links the midfield with the forwards. If both are on their game, it might prove too much for the vulnerable German defense to handle.
Tactically, although the Italians haven't quite lived up to Lippi's pre-tourney promise that the Italians would ditch their old defensive approach, there's no doubt Italy has attacked more than usual this tournament, although it often has reverted to its traditional defensive counterattacking approach.
On the downside for Italy, one-half of its superb defensive center back pair, Alessandro Nesta, is once again doubtful -- it's listed as a "very remote" probability that he will be fit to face the Germans. Of course, this leaves Lippi with the dilemma of continuing with inexperienced Andrea Barzagli, who was deputized for Nesta against Ukraine, or using newly reinstated Marco Materazzi, who's back from suspension. For the love of all things holy and the hopes of the Italian nation, one can only pray that Lippi opts to keep Materazzi on the bench. Speaking of the bench -- Simone Perrotta should thank his lucky stars that Daniele De Rossi is suspended. Against Ukraine, Perrotta continued to fine-tune the art of managing to lose the ball 90 percent of the time he received it.
Despite these concerns, the Italians are clearly a superior team on paper. If Italy can keep the game from going to penalties, it will maintain its curious cycle of reaching the World Cup final every 12 years since 1970.
It's hard to be impressed by this German team, but it has managed to do what every other noted German team before it did -- methodically grind its way to the deep stages of the World Cup when many felt it lacked the talent to do so.
If there's one thing you can laud coach Jürgen Klinsmann for, it's that he has managed to restore the swagger, confidence and arrogance the German team traditionally is noted for (see Tim Borowski's trash-talking gesture to the Argentines during the penalty shootout that set off a postmatch brawl). The other notable change is the attacking mind-set he has instilled in this German team. At times, Germany has produced some impressive attacking play despite the fact that its key player, Michael Ballack, has yet to reach top form.
Home crowd support, as always, has loomed large in World Cups, and with the German fans seemingly willing their team on to victory, the strike duo of Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski continue to score.
That said, the Germans looked bereft of ideas against Argentina. Had Argentine coach Jose Perkerman not foolishly decided to sit on a one-goal lead and made some substitutions of the highest ineptitude, it's doubtful the Germans still would be in this tournament. As it is, the team will need more out of midfielders Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger if it's going to progress against Italy, especially with Torsten Frings suspended after his part in the brawl against Argentina.
The other question is what approach will Klinsmann take against Italy? For most of the tournament, the Germans have attacked at a vigorous pace and pushed the ball, yet against Argentina they employed a deliberate and more cautious approach. Against Italy, Germany would be far better off forcing the pace and tempo since a slow buildup plays into the cat-and-mouse style that Italy favors.
This much is certain, however, if the Germans extend the game to penalties, bet your house they'll win. Even taking into the account that Germany is practically unbeatable and infallible in penalty shootouts -- if there's one country that rivals England for penalty shootout incompetence, it's Italy.
Prediction: Italy beats Germany.
Portugal vs. France
For those seeking a relative underdog to root for at this point, Portugal is the choice. Compared with the other teams left, Portugal's lineage is decidedly threadbare. For a start, it's the only one of the four never to have won a title and this will be the first semifinal for the Portuguese since 1966.
As for France, it looks like a completely different team from the one that barely escaped elimination in the first round.
Let me start by saying again for the benefit of certain TV analysts that this team is not the much-maligned "Golden Generation" team Portugal once expected so much from. That generation consisted of a bunch of talented yet ultimately underachieving stars the likes of Vitor Baia, Joao Pinto and Rui Costa. The only player left on the current team from that era is Luis Figo.
This is a new Portugal, one with far more mental verve than one typically associates with Portuguese teams. All credit must go to coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. As Scolari told reporters after the win against England, "We have a good team and can go even further as we advance. The spirit in this team is a warrior spirit. That is what was missing in Portuguese football."
Even so, all the warrior attributes in the world won't help this team if it continues to underperform. Portugal simply hasn't played that well yet, save for spells against Angola and the Netherlands. Part of the problem has been Scolari's inability, through no fault of his own, to field a consistent lineup. With playmaker Deco missing games because of either injury or suspension, red cards affecting the shape of his team and key injuries to players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Scolari has yet to have his preferred lineup on the field for a sustained period.
The other major problem is the continued lack of a killer instinct in front of goal -- something that has haunted the Portuguese team for decades ever since the legendary Eusebio retired. On the evidence of Portugal's play so far, it's a problem that might prove to be the team's undoing in this tournament. Key striker Pauleta is typically inconsistent, but this has been a poor tournament for him so far and he hasn't looked as though he'll get untracked anytime soon. One problem has been a lack of service, and the other is that Scolari has been giving up on Pauleta too soon, subbing him out early in games.
Other than that, against England, the team reverted to its age-old habit of trying to get too fancy around the opposing penalty area and interweaving too many passes in search of a perfect shot opportunity. If Portugal plays like that again, it'll find it difficult to score against France.
On the plus side, Deco is back for this game and his presence will make a huge difference. Equally notable is the play of Figo lately. He clearly looks like a man willing to sacrifice all for the cause. Watching Figo track back on defense and slide to retrieve balls from going out for corners brings back visions of the player he was in his prime at Barcelona, as opposed to the player who later coasted and often looked uninterested in his final few seasons at Real Madrid.
On offense, he lacks the pace he once had to beat defenders off the dribble, but he retains his vision and guile and, combined with Deco, is Portugal's best bet to unlock the French defense. As for the other notable of Portugal's big-name trio, Cristiano Ronaldo -- he complained of soreness in his thigh after the England game and is once again a mild injury concern for the semis. Ronaldo has been a little erratic so far this tournament and seems to struggle at times with his decision making on the break. However, the fact remains that he has the sheer talent to break open any game -- the only question is whether he can harness that skill against France.
As a Brazilian fan, it's safe to say Brazil doesn't fear facing any country in the World Cup. After Saturday's shocking result, it's also safe to say France has had Brazil's number in recent World Cup history, having eliminated the Selecao in three of the past six World Cups.
This has been a tale of two tournaments so far for France. After an abysmal first-round showing that evoked memories of the 2002 first-round flameout, the French midfield seems to have rediscovered the fountain of youth, and its reinvigorated play has inspired the French.
The key, of course, is Zinedine Zidane, who has been superb in the last two games. The book on Zidane this past couple of seasons was that while he retained his touch and unmatched vision, he seemed to have lost that burst that enabled him in seasons past to glide effortlessly past opposing players. Yet on Saturday, there were a couple of scintillating runs where he cruised past two or three defenders at a time as if they weren't there. The only question, at this point, is how much longer can he keep this up? If Zidane continues to play as he did against Brazil, France is a very real threat to win this tournament.
Don't underestimate the cleanup work being done by defensive midfielders Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira that allows Zidane and Franck Ribery the chance to strut their offensive arsenal.
Of almost equal importance might be Thierry Henry's mind-set. Long accused of being a chronic underachiever on the international stage, Henry finally scored and played well for France in a big game. Granted, considering the almost comical way Brazilian liability (aka defender Roberto Carlos) backpedaled away from Henry and left him wide open, Henry's goal against Brazil amounted to a gimme. However, there's no doubt a weight has been lifted off Henry's shoulders, and if he hits his full stride, there are very few defenders in the world who can contain him.
Judging by the way the French celebrated after the victory against Brazil, it also seems as if the fractured team unity that had been rumored widely seems to be temporarily healed. If there's one dark lining in the cloud, though, it continues to be coach Raymond Domenech, who continues to partake in the mystifying substitution strategy that has befallen so many coaches this tournament. Domenech's latest grievous error was to replace Henry with Louis Saha against Brazil. If you're going to insist on trying to cling to a one-goal lead, bring on a defender or defensive midfielder for Henry -- but to replace him with another striker is mind-boggling. Things worked out, but what if Brazil had scored a tying goal? France would have played all of extra time and penalties without the services of one of the world's greatest goal threats.
Prediction: Portugal beats France as Scolari outschemes Domenech.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org