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Hard Feelings

The pressure that makes the event so compelling can crush those who shoulder its burden

YOU COULD HAVE been anywhere in Brazil last Saturday and sensed the same thing during the fateful minutes of the World Cup host nation's penalty-kick shootout against Chile: It felt as though the Earth itself was holding its breath. Angst, pride, tension, fear—local emotions run the gamut whenever the Sele√ß√£o play, and for a few moments they crystallized diamond-hard with the prospect of a national catastrophe: round of 16 elimination on home soil.

The weight of 200 million countrymen strained the faces of the Brazilian players. Goalkeeper J√∫lio César started crying before the penalty kicks even started. Midfielder Luiz Gustavo bowed on his knees and prayed. And when Brazil finally won 3--2, 22-year-old forward Neymar collapsed, sobbing, overcome by the pressure and then the simple relief of survival. This wasn't even the final. Brazil still needs three more wins for its sixth title.

The scene laid bare the passion of the World Cup: the nationalism, the shared emotions, the millionaire athletes bawling over a desire for something money can't buy. And yet, if you care at all about the human spirit, it had to leave you feeling a little uncomfortable. There is only one acceptable result for Brazil in this World Cup—win the whole thing—and as the team's quarterfinal showdown with Colombia loomed on Friday, an uneasy question hung in the air: Would these players' lives be defined forever if they come up short?

More than one Brazilian player here has referred to the haunting tale of Moacir Barbosa, a gentle man whose travails make Bill Buckner's seem trivial. As the national-team goalkeeper when the country last hosted a World Cup, in 1950, Barbosa was 11 minutes from winning the sport's biggest prize when he was beat near-post. Known for the rest of his life as the man who made Brazil cry, Barbosa died at 79 in 2000. "The maximum punishment in Brazil is 30 years imprisonment," he said in his final interview, "but I have been paying for something I am not even responsible for for 50 years."

For all of this World Cup's glorious moments, the tournament's 20th edition has taken us to those uncomfortable places more than usual. How are we supposed to feel when one of the world's most talented scorers, Uruguay's Luis Suàrez, follows up a two-goal master class against England by chomping on an Italian defender's shoulder? That was Suàrez's third instance of biting an opponent on the field, and while his initial denial was laughable ("I lost my balance") and he did eventually apologize after FIFA imposed a four-month ban from any soccer activity, the dominant feeling was sadness over his mental health.

Then again, a host of World Cup stars were meeting, even surpassing, their nation's outrageously high expectations. Argentina's Lionel Messi scored four goals in the group stage ahead of Tuesday's round of 16 game against Switzerland, finally proving he can dominate on this stage. Neymar deftly converted his penalty—left and low—against Chile while scoring four goals of his own, matching Messi strike for strike. The two forwards appeared to be on a collision course before the World Cup, and nothing had happened through Monday to change that forecast.

If there's been a story line to match the march to a Messi-Neymar showdown, it's that of Colombia's James Rodríguez; few things in sports are more energizing than to witness the emergence of a new global superstar. The majestic 22-year-old midfielder had a giant $61 million price tag on his transfer from Portugal's Porto to Monaco of the French league last year—but potential, as we know, isn't the same as production, and few thought J-Rod would turn incandescent at the World Cup. His Cup-leading five goals in four games included the most breathtaking strike of the tournament, a turn-and-fire volley from 30 yards out that sank a Suàrez-less Uruguay and shook the foundations of Maracan√£ stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

As Colombia's first quarterfinal run in its long history showed us, this has been a World Cup of the Americas, and not just the southern version. The U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica all reached the round of 16, and while soccer fever was gripping the U.S., where a record 25 million people watched a 2--2 tie against Portugal, Costa Rica turned into the best narrative. Ignored before the tournament, the Ticos won a group stacked with three former World Cup champions—Italy, Uruguay, England—and backed up that promise by bouncing pesky Greece on Sunday to reach the quarterfinals. The moment of truth came from (where else?) the penalty spot. In a shootout clinic Costa Rica buried all five attempts just one day after Brazil and Chile struggled to combine for half as many.

It was a remarkable display by the Costa Ricans: five perfect strikes without Greece's keeper laying so much as a gloved finger on the ball. They made the pressure disappear.

J√∫lio César, Brazil's goalie, started crying before the penalty kicks even started.


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