RIO DE JANEIRO -- There is nothing like an empty stadium, especially when that stadium is the storied, crackling Maracana, Christ the Redeemer peeking sideways through the hole in the roof. An empty stadium is filled with ghosts, fighting for space with possibility. It is a window to the past and to the future. The beauty of an empty stadium, of a vacant Maracana, is that it can be the stage for whatever you want to see.
On Thursday, the French were the first to take to that wide-open pitch. They started confined to the circle at the center, each man juggling a ball with his feet, a competition won or lost by the thinnest slivers of grace. Then came the Germans in the warmth of the higher afternoon. They began with an impromptu game of hoops, Thomas Muller and friends trying to heave balls -- with their hands, not their feet -- into a trash can in the stands. Scattered throughout the echoing arena, photographers and reporters watched these two former champions play their small games within their games and searched for anything that resembled meaning, anything that might tip tomorrow's hand.
They could see whatever they wanted to see.
We have now reached that stage in a World Cup, and perhaps this wild World Cup more than most, when there are no more easy answers. The comfort of obviousness, or at least the illusion of it, is gone. It's possible to argue semi-convincingly that six of the final eight teams have a reasonable chance of victory; a seventh, Belgium, would be surprising winners; only Costa Rica would prove a shock. But of all the quarterfinals, perhaps the hardest to divine is the first: France versus Germany in Rio. What a gooseflesh combination of syllables.
"It's hard to see what tomorrow holds for us," Hugo Lloris, the French captain and goalkeeper, said less than 24 hours from one of the games of his young life. "We're fully aware of the fact that in one match, anything is possible."
Before the tournament began, the Germans would have been the favorites to win here, maybe even the heavy favorites. They have looked at times like the perfect football team, a dominant collection of talent, relentless in their attack and defense. In their opening game in Brazil, their 4-0 humiliation of Portugal, they looked unstoppable. They looked less spectacular but safely in control in their 1-0 victory against the U.S.
But between those wins, that same team also struggled to a draw in a wide-open game against Ghana. And then lightly regarded Algeria pushed the Germans to extra time in the round of 16. Together the Africans have conspired to leave hairline fractures in that once shining steel wall.
Now the French have unexpectedly emerged as the more flawless side, the erasers of fissures and unhappy memories. They've made it easy to forget just how bad and mutinous they were in South Africa four years ago, and just how close they came to failing even to qualify for Brazil. When manager Didier Deschamps was asked for the key to his team's renewal, he answered, simply and beautifully: "November 19." That's when the French, needing to beat Ukraine by three goals in Paris, somehow managed it, the first European team to overcome a 2-0 first-leg deficit to reach the World Cup.
They have looked buoyant since, romping through a high-scoring group stage against clearly inferior opponents and claiming a 2-0 win over Nigeria in the round of 16, one of only two elimination games so far decided by more than a single goal.
None of that, however, has stripped the Germans of their greatest advantage: They remain the Germans. "We are really hot to dispute this match," manager Joachim Low said, and it was hard to doubt him. Several of his players have been battling coldlike symptoms, and the German media have been striking panic notes leading into a match between two teams on seemingly different trajectories. Low looked less concerned. "I'm very cool and relaxed," he said with a shrug. "We're here."
The Germans are here, and they are a threat so long as they are. If you look at empty stadiums and see ghosts -- if you want or need to believe that history matters in games like this one -- then they become even more fearsome. Although these two countries have not played each other in a World Cup since 1986 -- that's how far back we are reaching -- Germany beat France 2-0 in that year's semifinal. They also met in the semifinal four years earlier, playing one of the most fraught games in modern football history, the so-called Tragedy of Seville. West German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher knocked out two of Patrick Battiston's teeth and broke three of his ribs with a vicious shoulder charge, and the French went on to suffer even more lasting damage, losing on penalties a game they had led 3-1.
"As far as we are concerned, we live in the present moment," Lloris said, perhaps not surprisingly. "We want to write our own history, obviously."
Soon both teams finished their work for their day, and the Maracana was left even emptier than it was before. "It's not the stadium that matters," German midfielder Toni Kroos said after he had finished his workout. "It's our performance in it." Still we sat and stared, hoping to find signs in the grass. It was like looking at a typewriter that had a single piece of paper rolled into it and expecting to see how the story ends.