History beckons for Argentina
"After the 4-0 loss to Germany [in the quarterfinals at South Africa 2010] this feels like revenge. We've got past a barrier, one which kept seeing us knocked out."
Sergio Romero was probably speaking only for his team after Argentina's 1-0 win over Belgium, but in many ways it felt like he was speaking for an entire nation. The last time Argentina qualified for a World Cup semifinal, in 1990, Lionel Messi had just turned 3 years old and the success probably felt unending; they would go on to put host nation Italy out and make a third World Cup final in four attempts.
But since then, it's been nothing but frustration at the quarterfinal stage, if they've even gotten that far. (Argentina fell in the second round at USA '94 and went out in the group stage in Japan and South Korea in 2002.)
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Those recent frustrations have played on many minds in Buenos Aires, even after the draw in December was made and it became apparent that Argentina had a relatively gentle route to the semifinals. While always recognising they should have been able to make it, the knowledge that the quarterfinals might represent a ceiling of sorts remained.
With that lingering fear now a memory, Argentines were able to enjoy the Netherlands vs. Costa Rica quarterfinal in the knowledge that the longer it went on, the better it would be for their own hopes. And even that went their way, with the Dutch forced to drag things out to penalty kicks in the heat of Salvador in order to win through to a semifinal which will be a repeat of their famous 1998 quarterfinal -- and, of course, the 1978 final.
There have been eulogies in the Argentine press for Alejandro Sabella. He's not been without his critics during this tournament, but on Saturday, he acted decisively and it was the changes he made to an already winning side which brought the improvement Argentina needed. Martin Demichelis was solid at centre-back -- a far cry from the performances of Federico Fernandez, the man he replaced -- and Lucas Biglia was an upgrade over Fernando Gago's showings in midfield.
One change Sabella didn't make also came up smelling of roses. Gonzalo Higuain has been criticised constantly during this World Cup by Argentine fans and journalists, and not without reason. In part, he remained in the side by default -- there simply aren't any other target-man-shaped forwards in the squad. But his early goal saw confidence flood back into his game, he proved a mobile option up front for Argentina throughout and he was the width of the crossbar away from adding a spectacular second after the break.
Whatever happens now, this side will go down in Argentine football history. Only four times before have Argentina advanced as far as the semifinals; on one of those occasions (1978) they were the host nation, and on two of the others (1986 and 1990) they were led by Diego Maradona. Only once have they reached the last four without either of those conditions being in play, and that was way back in 1930 in the inaugural World Cup.
That fact alone puts what the side have achieved already into focus, but there'll be no resting on laurels. Maradona or no Maradona, host nation or no host nation, Argentina have always won through to the final when they've reached the semis. The finish line is still in sight, but the feeling is that of all the hurdles they had to clear to reach it, Saturday's might just have been the most significant in many ways.