World Cup Reset: Enter the All-Out-War Stage

Perhaps no player is as well prepared for what lies ahed in the World Cup as Arjen Robben, shown here celebrating after the Netherlands defeated Costa Rica 4-3 in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 tie during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil, Saturday, July 5, 2014.

It was a match that soccer fans had salivated over for days: Brazil vs. Colombia in the World Cup quarterfinals. In one corner, the touted host team, looking to finally get on track after a sluggish start to the tournament. In the other, the red-hot, charismatic and immensely likable Cafeteros of Colombia, led by 22-year-old James Rodriguez, unquestionably this year's breakout star.
What magic could Friday's matchup bring? The possibilities seemed endless. But, instead of a heavyweight clash to be remembered for years to come, Friday was unquestionably the 2014 World Cup's worst day — the kind of day that makes you curse the soccer gods and stew bitterly for hours. Brazil limped off the pitch with a 2-1 win and a berth in the semifinals. But the World Cup itself lost — big-time.
Why was Friday such a depressing, stupid, no-good, all-around awful day for soccer fans everywhere? The fates of two young men: Rodriguez and Neymar, Brazil's 22-year-old water-bug of a striker who who spent the past three weeks seizing his destiny as Brazil's next all-time great.
Despite his tender age, Neymar has been a star for years. Rodriguez , however, only just burst into the mainstream soccer consciousness thanks to a thrilling performance in Brazil. He's currently the World Cup's top scorer, with six goals in five games, many of them executed in stunning fashion. Life for the baby-faced maestro will never be the same.
But while Rodriguez went out the way most every star in this World Cup has or will — after a loss, and despite his best efforts — it's Neymar who was truly robbed from us, taking no small measure of luster off the tournament as a whole. This vicious takedown by Colombia's Juan Zúñiga fractured one of Neymar's vertebrae and instantly made Zúñiga public enemy number one in Brazil.
After Neymar was carted off the pitch, after the final whistle blew, after footage emerged of Neymar being whisked directly from stadium to hospital, things played out more or less as you'd expect them to in 2014. Fans on Twitter called Zúñiga vile names; some even sent death threats. Neymar posted an inspirational message to YouTube. Zúñiga took to Facebook to offer an apology.

So Brazil limps into its Tuesday semifinal date with Germany, down not just Neymar but also star defender and captain Thiago Silva, whose asinine booking against Colombia earned him a one-game suspension. David Luiz, the soulful mensch of a central defender who memorably traded shirts with a tearful Rodriguez following Friday's quarterfinal, will take the captain's band to lead undermanned Brazil against Germany. On the line: a berth in the World Cup final, just one step away from eternal glory.
The wounded Seleção fighting for its World Cup dream is an appropriate image to take into the semifinals. It underscores the central point to emerge from this weekend: After the group stage and two rounds into the knockout stage, the World Cup has entered its all-out-war stage. Sheer survival, by any means necessary, is all that matters as just four teams still stand and 28 have been sent home.
Perhaps no remaining player is better equipped for this phase of the World Cup battle than Dutchman Arjen Robben. The best footballer left in the tournament after Argentina's transcendent Lionel Messi, Robben marries skill, grit and cynicism like no one else in the game.
Brazil Soccer WCup Netherlands Costa Rica

Netherlands' Arjen Robben speaks to Costa Rican players after being fouled by Costa Rica's Giancarlo Gonzalez during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer matchat the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil, Saturday, July 5, 2014.
As the Netherlands ground through extra time against Costa Rica on Saturday, extending the match from a regulation 90 minutes to a marathon 120, Robben appeared the only player on the pitch who hadn't tired. He ran just as fiercely and attacked the Ticos goal just has doggedly as he had all game. Meanwhile, players from both sides wilted all around him.
When that quarterfinal went to penalties, Robben coldly buried his turn into the left side of the net, helping end Costa Rica's Cinderella run. A week prior, he'd taken a controversial fall in the penalty box to end the dreams of another CONCACAF team, Mexico. You don't have to like the dastardly Arjen Robben — and indeed, many hate his flopping guts — but you have to respect his skill and determination.
Germany, meanwhile, ground out a 1-0 win over France to gain a semifinal berth and reach a position where most expected to see them before the World Cup began. Argentina beat by Belgium by the same score on Saturday. La Albiceleste takes on the Netherlands in one semifinal, while Germany meets Brazil in the other side of the bracket.
But Argentina's win, too, came at great cost — midfielder Angel di Maria, perhaps the team's second-best player after Messi, went out with a thigh injury and will miss the Netherlands match. Just one more piece of proof — as evidenced by Brazil's shorthanded roster and personified by Robben's cunning will — that the World Cup is now little more than a game of determination and survival.
It's kill or be killed, and the bloodshed resumes Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.

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