KAZAN, Russia — To get past Belgium in the quarterfinals at the World Cup, Brazil has to do something it has not been able to do since it last won the tournament in 2002: overcome European opposition in the knockout stages.
Since beating Germany 2-0 in the 2002 World Cup final, the five-time winner has been eliminated by European sides in the three subsequent competitions. Brazil lost to France and the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and was humiliated 7-1 by Germany in the semifinals four years ago at home.
Fortunately for the Selecao, Belgium has a poor record against South American sides at the World Cup. Not only has Belgium not won any of its games against South American teams in the knockout stages, it hasn’t even managed to score a goal. Most recently, Belgium lost 1-0 to Argentina in the 2014 quarterfinals.
The core of that side remains in place in Russia, where Belgium has won all four of its matches, including coming back from 2-0 down to beat Japan in the round of 16 with a thrilling counterattack in the final seconds of injury time.
Everyone knew about the array of talent running through the Belgium side, from Thibaut Courtois in goal to Kevin De Bruyne in midfield and Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku up front. The main questions following disappointing defeats in the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship centered on the team’s character.
That 3-2 victory over Japan was the first time a team has overcome a two-goal deficit to win outright since West Germany beat England in 1970, and the first to do it in regulation since Portugal came from three down to beat North Korea in 1966. It has fueled confidence inside the Belgium camp that it can deal with adversity and make the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1986.
“Maybe it’s this sort of match that we needed for the future,” said Hazard, the captain.
Coach Roberto Martinez won praise for his substitutions, with both Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli scoring, the latter with practically the last kick of the match.
“You have to find solutions, you have to find reaction but what you have to find more than anything is the desire and togetherness of a group of players, that they are desperate to perform,” Martinez said.
Unlike the game against Japan, Martinez said, Belgium will be the underdog Friday in the quarterfinal in Kazan, and as such, should play with a certain amount of freedom.
“I think it’s a game that when you are a little boy, you dream of being involved in a World Cup, facing Brazil in a quarterfinal,” he said, “so from our point of view we can enjoy from the first second.”
Brazil coach Tite dismissed talk that his team is the favorite to win the match against Belgium, let alone the World Cup.
“Everything is open, up for grabs,” he said.
The winner will play France or Uruguay in the semifinals in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.
FRANCE VS. URUGUAY
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — France picked up two trophies in 1998: One, of course, was the country’s only World Cup title, won on home soil. It was also the birth year of Kylian Mbappe, the 19-year-old who’s emerging as one of the biggest stars of the World Cup.
“Well, that was a good year for him to be born, even if he didn’t see much of the 1998 World Cup,” joked French coach Didier Deschamps, who was the captain in ‘98. “I’m very happy that Mbappe is a French citizen.”
It will be France’s searing speed led by Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann against Uruguay’s defense anchored by Diego Godin on Friday in Nizhny Novgorod in the World Cup quarterfinals. The winner will face Brazil or Belgium.
Uruguay has given up only one goal in four World Cup matches, and France has scored seven — most in the 4-3 victory over Argentina in the round of 16.
In scoring twice against Argentina , Mbappe became the first teenager with multiple goals in a World Cup knockout game since a 17-year-old Pele did it twice (including a hat trick against France) in 1958.
It’s a big stage with inevitable comparisons that Mbappe smiled about and then batted away.
“It’s flattering to be the second one since Pele,” said Mbappe, born in France to a father from Cameroon and a mother from Algeria. “But let’s put things in perspective. Pele’s another category.”
This is France’s seventh quarterfinal and its fourth in the last six World Cups dating back to 1998 and the famous side led by Deschamps, Patrick Vieira, Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry — the so-called “Rainbow Team” from a multicultural France.
“In a World Cup you have the top-level players,” said Mbappe, who plays for Paris Saint-Germain. “So it’s an opportunity to show what you can do and what your abilities are. There is no better place than a World Cup.”
After three lackluster games in group play, France was electric in its most recent match, particularly in the second half when it cut up Argentina’s plodding defense. Five of France’s starters in the first group match had never played in the World Cup, including Mbappe.
“You need some patience,” Deschamps said.
Deschamps has compared playing Uruguay to facing Peru, which narrowly lost to France 1-0 in group play on a goal by Mbappe.
He termed Uruguay “solid and aggressive” in a French television interview, adding: “These are not qualities displayed by Argentina.”
The match will showcase several cross-border friendships.
Griezmann plays at Atletico Madrid where his teammates are Uruguayan defenders Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez. Godin is the godfather of Griezmann’s daughter.
While Godin and Gimenez will try to stop Griezmann, Uruguay striker Luis Suarez will be opposing Barcelona teammate Samuel Umtiti.
“I’ve always joked … that I wanted to face Umtiti at a World Cup,” Suarez said. “And it came true.”
Suarez’s running mate, Edinson Cavani, scored both goals in the knockout win over Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal but is nursing a hamstring injury, and it’ unclear if he will play.
His absence would be a blow to the South Americans, but defense is the real key with coach Oscar Tabarez expecting to see less of the ball.
“I think very often there’s the mistaken belief that ball possession leads to scoring opportunities,” said Tabarez, who took over in 2006.
“If you don’t have ball possession, you can still inflict pain.”