By Julian Linden
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Argentina beat Belgium 1-0 on Saturday to join Brazil and Germany in the World Cup semi-finals as the host nation was still reeling over the loss of star forward Neymar.
Argentina reached the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 24 years after a brilliant eighth-minute goal by striker Gonzalo Higuain at the Brasilia national stadium.
Higuain instinctively fired the ball into the Belgian net after it was deflected towards him off Belgium defender Jan Vertonghen in what proved to be the only goal of a match dominated by defense.
"We were able to reach a semi-final which we haven't achieved for many years. Now we need to play well and try and reach the final," Higuain said.
"We gave our all, it's a World Cup, it doesn't happen every day. Now we have to think about the next game. There are two matches left to achieve this beautiful dream."
Higuain grazed the crossbar with another powerful strike in the second half while Lionel Messi, who teased and tormented the Belgians all match, blasted the ball straight at Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois when he broke free in stoppage time.
The South Americans were content to spend most of the game defending as a disappointing Belgium struggled to make any inroads, although Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini both went close to equalizing with headers.
"We were not impressed by the Argentines, absolutely not, it’s just an ordinary team," Belgium coach Marc Wilmots growled.
"Messi is the star player, he never loses the ball but he made a couple of tackles and fouls, the referee is never against him, every time there was a little foul it was almost always in favor of Argentina."
Argentina will play Costa Rica or the Netherlands, who meet in the last quarter-final in Salvador later on Saturday, while Brazil and Germany meet in the other semi after winning their quarter-finals on Friday.
Bookmakers have installed Germany as the new favorites to win the title after Brazil's hopes took a battering with the news that Neymar had broken a bone in his back in his team's 2-1 win over Colombia.
The carnival atmosphere that swept over Brazil on Friday night was replaced by a more dour mood on Saturday as the samba nation tried to come to terms with Neymar's untimely exit from the tournament.
Brazilian television stations interrupted their normal programming to broadcast live shots of Neymar leaving the team's training base on a helicopter while Brazil President Dilma Rousseff sent the injured player a letter.
"It broke my heart and the heart of every Brazilian watching the pain on your face on the Castelao field yesterday," Rousseff wrote.
"But we also saw the immense strength of a great warrior, who will never let himself be held back even when wounded."
The initial shock over Neymar's injury quickly turned to fury as the collision with Colombian defender Juan Zuniga was further scrutinized.
Neymar was carried off the field in tears, and later diagnosed with a fractured vertebra, when Zuniga came rushing in from behind and kneed the Brazilian striker in the back.
Zuniga was not booked over the incident and sent a personal note to Neymar explaining that it was an accident but not everyone agreed with his version of events.
"It was a very violent, unlawful tackle," said former Brazil striker Ronaldo.
"We all have to fight for football to have more fair play. We have to demand that sanctions be given to violent players. I am in favor of very severe sanctions to those who don’t want to play football and just want to do such violent tackles.
"It was an evil tackle," he added.
FIFA spokeswoman Delia Fischer said soccer's world governing body would evaluate the match after receiving the referee's report.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)