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Thursday July 3, 2014 MYT 3:42:09 AM
Thursday July 3, 2014 MYT 3:43:11 AM
by mike collett
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Colombia and Costa Rica will be trying to break into - and quickly escape from - an exclusive group of World Cup semi-finalists which could be known as the Bitter Sweet club.
There are only eight members and although Costa Rica and Colombia would be delighted to join it by beating the Netherlands and Brazil in the quarter-finals, they would just as quickly like to leave it again by winning their semis.
For the Bitter Sweet club comprises the eight countries who have reached a World Cup semi-final once only, and never made it to the final, and never got back to the semis either.
In fact, no country with just one semi-final appearance to their name has ever made it to the final.
Spain, who had been members since 1950, finally escaped in 2010 when they went on to win the trophy in South Africa.
Although winning the World Cup remains the dream of every player, just getting to the semi-finals can provide a career highlight, even if it is tinged with slight regret as Yordan Lechkov, vice-president of the Bulgarian FA, told Reuters.
The former midfielder was a key member of the Bulgarian side who reached the 1994 World Cup semis, scoring with a brilliant header in Bulgaria's 2-1 defeat of Germany in the quarter-finals in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
"Bulgarians are known as individuals who are difficult to work with," Lechkov said.
"It’s hard for us to form a solid team, it's part of our national characteristic and that’s why we achieve more success in the individual sports.
"But it was a different story in 1994. We had very talented and skilful players, who already played for some of the top European clubs and we managed to build a great team - I'm talking about Hristo Stoichkov, Krasimir Balakov, Emil Kostadinov and me," he said.
"For me, I never regretted so much that we couldn’t reach the final. We’re only a small country and it’s a big achievement to reach the World Cup finals, let alone we make it to the semi-finals.
"We realised what we had done when we returned to Bulgaria and we saw these exuberant crowds in the streets. People still stop me and thank me, telling me they experienced unbelievable moments during the summer of 1994," Lechkov added.
"It made us more responsible because people always expect us to do things in the best possible way. But what saddens me today is that we’re constantly talking about the 1994 World Cup while we can’t even qualify for the major tournaments now."
The United States became the unlikely founder members of the Bitter Sweet club when they reached the semis in the first World Cup in 1930, still their best ever showing.
They are in the company of Chile (1962), Russia, who reached the last four as the Soviet Union in 1966, Belgium (1986), Bulgaria (1994), Croatia (1998), South Korea (2002) and Turkey (2002) who made the semis in their first World Cup in 48 years.
Belgium are the only members of the club still involved in this tournament and are one of six of the eight quarter-finalists who have reached the World Cup semis before.
Germany, who face France, have been in a record 12 semis including when they played as West Germany, Brazil have been in 10, France five, Argentina and the Netherlands four each and Belgium one.
The most famous semi-final loser since World Cups were globally televised was Eusebio, whose tears after Portugal lost to England in the 1966 semi-finals remain an enduring World Cup image.
Although Portugal finally left the Bitter Sweet club, 40 years after that 1966 defeat by reaching the last four in 2006, Eusebio often spoke about the experience of that defeat at Wembley before he died this year.
"It was the highlight of my career in one way, but the worst moment in another," he reminisced to Reuters in an interview several years ago.
"I was the top scorer with nine goals and would have given them all up to have got to the final, but it was not to be. We beat the Soviet Union in the losers match but I always thought we could have been champions that year."
That is still the dream for the remaining eight sides in the tournament.
On reflection, a place in the last four might well prove to be the highlight for the Colombians and Costa Ricans. Bitter, and sweet at the same time.
(Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov in Sofia, editing by Ed Osmond)
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