James Lawton: The sleeping finals wake up to a truly thrilling finale

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With the underachievers back home, a tournament that started so slowly may yet deliver the greatest climax in 40 years

Now we will see whether it has been worth all the rancour and the heartache – and whether England, France and Italy were ejected from the overture of a great symphony or merely provided the first crippling evidence that an overblown honky-tonk has all the time been about promises that cannot be fulfiled. One thing, at least, is certain. The real examination starts today.

Greatness, the true variety that is the lifeblood of the world's most significant sports event, has not yet touched this 19th tournament but there is a very good chance it will come along on the warm and exhilarating wind blowing in against the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth.

Brazil, who these last few weeks have threatened to wrap their huge tentacles around all opposition under the remorseless prompting of their coach, Dunga, are certainly braced for the possibility. They concede the danger represented by Holland in the quarter-final, and in no ordinary way.

Juan, who has looked a little more imposing at the heart of defence with each appearance here, says he expects his fiercest challenge – and that no team here seems to understand the Brazilian way better than the Dutch. "In many ways they are the football nation closest to us," says Juan. "They like to lull you and strike. Their goal against Slovakia was brilliant, Sneijder played the ball 50 yards to Robben, and he finished perfectly. When I saw it I turned to Lucio [his equally formidable partner in central defence] and I said, 'You know, we cannot be sleepy – not for a moment.'"

For the moment, this match throws up the most intriguing and intoxicating possibilities thus far, but when the quarter-final action is over there remains, whatever happens in Port Elizabeth, the most thrilling prospect.

It is that at least one of the survivors, which the odds insist will be Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Spain, will have both the talent and the level of opposition to make this the best World Cup in the 24 years since Diego Maradona performed the first half of an astonishing double achievement he is promising to conclude here as the coach and the inspiration of Lionel Messi's Argentina.

Messi has the same potential that Maradona unfurled so unforgettably in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico in 1986. He can prove that he is the player of players, an artist of unrivalled will and execution.

Yet all of it is poised so beautifully now that the dross is removed.

Some things never change. The Dutch are rowing again over a clash of egos between Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie. The Brazilians ache to restate, eight years after their last triumph, their status as the greatest football nation the world will ever know. The Germans lurk in ambush mode as they face the team of Maradona, who once more has one foot in heaven and one in hell. Spain fret that for all their innate talent, and sometimes sublime skill, they may have only partly repaired a terrible fault line of underachievement when they won the European title in Vienna two years ago.

We will know the answers to all of these questions soon enough, but meanwhile certain assumptions can be made.

One is that Paraguay will tomorrow come to the end of their contribution to what may well prove a dramatic renaissance of South American football. They have displayed considerable character and talent while fighting through to their first quarter-final, but if their opponents Spain, who are likely to give Cesc Fabregas his first starting chance to prove that he has a place alongside Andres Iniesta and Xavi, have questions to resolve, this is not a match in which they will be posed most severely. Spain, surely, have their first moment of truth against Argentina in Durban next week.

Yet the Germans indeed bring menace to the edge of Argentina's fears. Their defence may look fragile against men like Messi and Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain, but we have already seen the character of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the counter-attacking flair of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Müller. Germany believe they can bring some formidable psychological strength to another quarter-final that could help lift the tournament a little closer to the stars. They did, after all, produce oodles of the stuff when beating Argentina at the same stage four years ago. However, Maradona was a spectator, not the one-man evangelical torrent who will be rampaging again tomorrow. More significant still, Messi was on the bench that day the Argentines reacted so violently to their demise. Tomorrow, he will again be at the centre of the football earth.

Spain against Argentina, Brazil against Uruguay, is a semi-final line-up that can indeed deliver us to a climax of quality superior to anything we have known since the Brazil of Pele, Tostao and Gerson overwhelmed Italy 40 years ago.

If the heart hopes for the drumbeats of African joy, or even the revived drone of the infernal vuvuzelas that would accompany the upset of Uruguay by Ghana, reality says that the small nation that once built an astounding football empire on the banks of the Rio Plate, a defensive machine of awesome efficiency and players of the quality of Juan Schiaffino, will join the semi-final contenders.

Uruguay represent a bottom line of impressive defensive technique and, in 23-year-old Ajax striker Luis Suarez, a predator who has managed to challenge Diego Forlan's casting as the hero of a nation that hangs on doggedly to the memory of two World Cup triumphs in 1930 and 1950. The coach, Oscar Tabarez, insists that such a heritage is in good hands: "Before we began the World Cup we saw the great harmony among the players and I gathered them together and said, 'Back home the people have aspirations, they have dreams and we have to deliver them. We do not feel imprisoned by history, but I suppose we want to show that we have one – and a very good one."

What do you do, though, when you have a history that defines the very best of the game, that every time you come to the World Cup you realise you are playing not so much for the hopes of the nation but its bone-deep expectation.

You get more than a little jumpy, perhaps even paranoid, when you reach the quarter-finals. Fernando Duarte, a leading correspondent of O Globo television reports from within the Brazilian camp, "When Brazil fail it is usually at this point. Indeed when Brazilians get drunk and a bit soulful they often rerun the film of 1982, when we lost to Italy with a team of brilliant players in Barcelona. Zico, one of the greatest of them, told me, 'That was the day when football changed, when we realised we could no longer just put our faith in great talent. We have to become a little harder, we have to change.'"

Dunga, of course, is the grand disciple of such reassessment and there is no question he has built the most formidable football machine in this tournament. Still, there are worries about the Dutch. "The feeling is," says Duarte, "they are a little bit too much like us for our peace of mind. We may be a little terrified of what Maradona is doing with Argentina, and we know that nothing could be worse than losing a final to them, but Holland are the biggest threat we have faced so far."

Kaka agrees. "The Dutch may give us a chance to play our game, to have a little more room in attack, but we have to be concerned about their ability to strike back. They come at you so quickly, you have to be very watchful." Lucio, like his partner Juan, was deeply impressed by that Robben strike against Slovakia and most of all by the speed with which Sneijder transformed defence into attack." He says, "They have a similar style of attack to our own. It is surprising they have never won the World Cup because they have produced so many great players and, of course, have had two great opportunities in finals.

"This is probably their best chance since they lost to the Germans and Argentina in the Seventies. No one has to tell us the danger."

This will not prevent Dunga from hammering out the warnings right up until this afternoon's kick-off. "We know what we have to do," he says, "we have to play to all our strengths because these are opponents who demand the highest respect."

One of these strengths in this tournament has been the exuberant play of Robinho, a ghost of a player at Real Madrid and Manchester City who had to go home to Brazil to be loved and reanointed as a man capable of winning football's biggest prize.

It is a Brazilian belief that will be most seriously tested as the wind comes in from the Indian Ocean and this World Cup may just dare to be great.

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