MEXICO CITY — And then there were eight.
Three weeks and 44 games after it began, the 1986 World Cup has finally reached the quarterfinal stage.
Along the way, some favorites in the 24-team field have fallen unexpectedly early, among them defending champion Italy, former two-time titlist Uruguay and highly rated Denmark and the Soviet Union.
Then, too, players whose stars were expected to burn a little brighter in Mexico faded sooner than expected. Gone are the Danes, Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer. Gone also are Uruguay's Enzo Francescoli, the Soviet Union's Rinat Dassaiev and Poland's Zbigniew Boniek.
Eight teams have survived, including four former World Cup winners. By Sunday evening, those eight will have been reduced to four. The wheat has been separated from the chaff; the task now is to grade the wheat.
Today at noon local time (11 a.m. PDT), three-time winner Brazil takes on European champion France at Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara, while at 4 p.m. local time (3 p.m. PDT), two-time winner West Germany plays Mexico at Universitario Stadium in Monterrey.
Sunday at noon, two former World Cup winners, England and Argentina, square off at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, and at 4 p.m., Spain and Belgium meet in Cuauhtemoc Stadium at Puebla.
The four surviving teams will advance to the semifinals Wednesday, with the Brazil-France winner meeting the West Germany-Mexico winner at Guadalajara at noon and the England-Argentina winner facing the Spain-Belgium winner at Mexico City at 4 p.m.
At this stage, any sort of prediction is precarious. Being among the best eight in the world generally means being able to hold your own with almost anyone. In other words, each of the four quarterfinal games should be closely contested.
A more detailed look at this weekend's matchups:
BRAZIL-FRANCE: Brazilian goalkeeper Carlos has shut out each of the four opponents his country has faced, although Spain's Miguel Fernandez will argue that he had a legitimate goal disallowed in Brazil's 1-0 opening-game victory.
Either way, Carlos and the Brazilian defense have not been beaten. In France, however, they face their most serious challenge yet. Carlos believes that the outcome might even come down to luck.
"When teams such as Brazil and France meet," he said, "the victory goes to the one who takes better advantage of the opportunities. When they play more or less the same way, the luckiest one will win."
Brazil has looked increasingly impressive as the tournament has progressed and has the added advantage of having played all of its matches in Jalisco Stadium. All the same, its bearded philosopher and star, Socrates, is justifiably concerned about France's midfield might.
In order to contain the brilliance of Michel Platini, Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Luis Fernandez, Socrates said, Brazil will have to employ more of a zone defense than a man-to-man.
The French, meanwhile, will be trying to keep in check Brazil's two emerging stars, Careca and Josimar, while hoping that Zico has an off day.
Of the four quarterfinals, this one seems guaranteed to produce soccer of the highest caliber. Whichever team wins will become the World Cup favorite.
WEST GERMANY-MEXICO: Having played each of their four games at Queretaro and having struggled to score just four goals in those games, the West Germans travel to Monterrey, where they will be playing at a much lower altitude but in a much hotter temperature.
England played its three first-round matches at Monterrey, and striker Gary Lineker, the tournament's co-leading goal scorer with Spain's Emilio Butragueno, said last week that heat affects the players far more than altitude.
"I think it was harder to play in Monterrey (than at altitude)," Lineker said. "The heat there is tremendous, and it's very difficult for players to adapt. It (high altitude) is harder on the lungs, but you can recover. When it's the heat, it seems to dehydrate you."
The West Germans already are feeling a bit drained, having been pushed to the limit by Morocco in the second round before snatching a victory in the last two minutes. Then, too, there have been almost daily stories of friction in the West German camp. Friday, for example, Coach Franz Beckenbauer dismissed second-string goalkeeper Uli Stein, who, upset over not being chosen as the starter, had been critical of the team.
West Germany, the losing finalist in Spain four years ago, is the stronger team on paper, especially considering Mexico's abysmal World Cup record in the past. But, under Yugoslav Coach Bora Milutinovic, Mexico is a legitimate contender. At Monterrey, where Milutinovic pointed out Friday "we have never lost," Mexico could cause West Germany more than a few problems.