SAO PAULO, Brazil -- The streets of South America's largest city were oddly quiet Saturday.
Brazil's prized national team was playing in the second round of the World Cup, so by noon, after all the stores and restaurants had closed, you could walk down the center of the busiest highway and not be hit by anything but the wind.
Every patriotic Sao Paulan was home, watching the game on TV.
In Brazil they celebrate two things: Carnival and soccer. And this World Cup was to be a melding of the two. But the party almost ended Saturday before the band had arrived, with only the width of a goalpost twice separating ecstasy from tragedy.
Brazil needed 122 minutes of soccer and a shootout to turn back Chile in a drama that didn't end until Gonzalo Jara hit the right post with Chile's final shot.
In Belo Horizonte, where the game was played, some of Brazil's players rushed the field while others collapsed on the turf in a mix of joy and exhaustion.
In Sao Paulo -- and in Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and Recife -- air horns sounded and fireworks ignited. It was New Year's Eve on a sunny June afternoon.
In the center of the celebration was goalkeeper Julio Cesar, whose two saves in the shootout also saved Brazil. Four years ago in South Africa, he was blamed for the team's quarterfinal loss to the Netherlands. They don't forget things like that in Brazil.
But they do forgive and Saturday, with the weight of a country on his shoulders again, Julio Cesar was in tears before the first kick in the shootout.
"I couldn't hold it in," he said. "So many of my teammates came to me to say beautiful things."
Then, acknowledging how close Brazil had come to disaster, he added: "I just hope next time we don't need a penalty shootout -- for the sake of our families and not wanting anyone to suffer a heart attack."
Saturday's game almost didn't need a shootout but a hard shot from Mauricio Pinilla struck the crossbar in the final minute of overtime, denying Chile what would have been one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history.
Not that Chile didn't deserve that. Up until that reprieve for Brazil, Saturday's contest had been less a soccer game and more a heavyweight fight, with both teams trading punches but neither going down.
Brazil scored first, in the 18th minute, when Thiago Silva headed a Neymar corner toward the back post where Jara, who had taken a step in the wrong direction, stuck his leg back to block defender David Luiz. The ball found both of them and bounced into the net, although it was unclear whether it came off Jara or Luiz.
In either case, Lara celebrated his first international goal and Brazil led.
Chile got that goal back 14 minutes later when Alexis Sanchez rolled a right-footed shot past a diving Julio Cesar and just inside the net at the far post.
The shootout followed a similar script with Luiz burying the first shot to put Brazil in front. Julio Cesar then stopped shots by Pinilla and Sanchez, so when Marcelo beat goalie Claudio Bravo in the third round, Brazil was a goal away from victory.
So Chile rallied again with Charles Aranguiz and Marcelo Diaz beating Julio Cesar around a Hulk miss to tie the score after four rounds.
Fittingly, that left things up to the 22-year-old Neymar and the 34-year-old Julio Cesar, the youngest and oldest Brazilian starters.
Shooting first, Neymar kissed the ball, then began his barely legal stutter-step approach before drilling the ball into a corner. Jara, Chile's last chance, hurried quickly to the spot, smiled confidently, then put his shot into the right goalpost.
Only then could Brazil breathe again -- at least until Friday, when the national team plays Colombia in the quarterfinals.
"The Brazilian people needed this. And so did the players," an emotional Julio Cesar said.
"There's huge pressure in representing our country and it was tough on a psychological and emotional level. I got very emotional four years ago, and today I was crying again, but this time out of happiness. We've got three more steps to go now and I want to see Brazil celebrating. That's my big dream."
(c)2014 Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services