Brazil's Neymar, Colombia's James Rodriguez, Germany's Mesut Ozil and France's Karim Benzema (left to right) prepare to lead their national teams to a World Cup quarterfinal victory on July 4, 2014 in Brazil.
And so we inch closer to the end — and a new World Cup champion. But, first, we still have the quarterfinals to get through — in which, for the first time ever, all eight group winners made it through the round of 16.
Friday marks the beginning of the quarterfinals in which South America and Europe will each have to eliminate one of their own.
After the round of 16, four European teams, three South American teams and one Central American team remain. When Friday is through, the Europeans and South Americans will each lose one more when Germany plays France, and Brazil plays Colombia.
Two European and two South American powerhouses ruthlessly enter the quarterfinals; only one from each continent will continue their country's quest for glory. Who will survive?
France vs. Germany, 12 p.m. ET
Out of all 32 teams in the tournament, France had the undeniably best showing in the group stage — winning all three matches with an especially convincing 5-2 win over Switzerland — leaving many French fans wondering what could've happened had they not imploded due to coaching problems in 2010.
Still, throughout the group stages and leading up to the round of 16, people continued to ignore the French as long-shots to win the tournament. Instead, old favorites like Brazil and the Netherlands, and the CONCACAF underdogs Costa Rica, the U.S. and Mexico earned much of the spotlight.
Maybe that was right. Despite beating Nigeria 2-0 in their round of 16 match on Monday, the French had one of their weakest showings of the tournament. It was a much closer match than many had anticipated, considering France's decimation in Group E.
But the same could be said of the Germans. Looking at their group stage run, Germany started the tournament flexing their muscle in a 4-0 win over Portugal. Then things sort of deflated for the Germans. A 2-2 draw with Ghana tested the Germans and revealed just how vastly inferior their defense (despite having a world class right back in Phillip Lahm, who head coach Joachim Low plays in the midfield instead) is compared to an offensive lineup boasting world class players. In their last group match against the U.S., the rains of Recife slowed down the German's typically splendid and creative attacks, and they were ultimately only able to put one goal in.
Up until this quarterfinal match, the teams that faced both Germany and France tried to stop them from playing their game. Don't expect that to happen when the titans clash because both teams have exceptional talent that would be wasted otherwise. Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann won't want to sit back and try to dismantle the German attack led by the likes of Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and maybe even Andre Schurrle after his invigorating presence in Germany's nerve-wracking Algeria match on Monday.
Germany-France will be an explosive match — maybe not the most high-scoring, but certainly full of creative and inventive play. If the group stages are about holding on for the best possible outcome to mathematically edge out others to enter the knockout round, and the round of 16 is about playing to avoid losing in the first half, the quarterfinals and every round moving forward is about striking fear into the hearts of the countries that remain.
And both Germany and France can do that.
Brazil vs. Colombia, 4 p.m. ET
Brazil has long been the king of South America when it comes to soccer.
There's no other way around that. With five World Cup wins — the most of any nation in the world — they are the kings of the Cup. But maybe it's time for a new monarch?
Brazil's World Cup run has been full of struggles. They struggled in their opening match against Croatia, but eventually managed to win (maybe aided by some questionable calls, or lack thereof, from the center referee). They definitely struggled against a steely Mexico, where, despite the 0-0 draw, Mexico and their goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa came out looking like the real winners.
In Brazil's round of 16 match against Chile on Saturday, the kings looked shaky again — not only in regulation time, not only in extra time, but also in penalty kicks. If Chile's Mauricio Pinilla's agonizingly close shot in the last minute of extra time had been just a hair lower, Brazil would've been out of the tournament and an entire nation would have been left shattered.
When you look at Colombia's World Cup, it's a whole different picture summarized entirely by the 22-year-old James Rodriguez. Colombia's play has been quick, spirited and youthful — a style that made quick work of their group and Luis Suarez-less Uruguay. Colombia eased through the tournament thus far, probably spending more energy shaking those hips in their post-goal celebrations.
Colombia's run through the World Cup in some ways could be compared to France's. Sometimes its better to test your nerves in the group stages in hard-fought matches. Problems become much clearer in the face of adversity. Maybe Brazil, and even Germany, have tested their mettle and mustered to find wins in the overwhelming pressure of do-or-die matches.
Or, just as likely, Colombia's current performance has actually been that flawless.
We'll see either way on Friday when we witness the continued reign of Brazil's battle-scarred kings or the abdication of a worn throne.
Tags: BRAZIL, COLOMBIA, ENTERTAINMENT, FRANCE, GERMANY, SOCCER, SPORTS, World Cup