By MATTHEW JENNINGS
And then there were four. The FIFA World Cup is in its last week, and France and Belgium, Croatia and England are the only sides that remain. France and Belgium have twice met in the World Cup, the first time being back in Round One of 1938 where the French secured a 3-1 victory. The latest encounter in a World Cup saw France win 4-3 on penalties in 1986 in the 3rd/4th playoff.
Now, these two sides meet for a place in the World Cup Final of Russia 2018, to face either England or Croatia, for the ultimate glory on the World Stage, where an average of 3.2 billion viewers tune in. The furthest Belgium have made it in a World Cup has been the semifinals against an Argentinian side who went on to win the competition that year (1986).
Belgium have an extremely talented squad with the potential to do serious damage with their “golden generation” consisting of the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Vincent Kompany, and the mountainous 1.99m Thibaut Courtois in goal.
Belgium have had a good run this tournament, earning victories over Panama, Tunisia and England in the group stages. In the Round of 16, Japan gave Roberto Martinez’ Red Devils a huge shock, leading 2-0 with 30 minutes to play, but a superb comeback allowed them to score three late goals to qualify for the quarterfinals.
Brazil were the obstacle to a semi final spot, but Belgium seemed not worried at all, winning 2-1 in emphatic fashion. They now take on a robust French side who is also unbeaten and raring to go with some very talented players themselves.
In 1998, Les Bleus went all the way to win the World Cup as hosts against Brazil in the final. Now, with the South Americans out of the competition and Belgium determined to stop them in their tracks, France will look to replicate what they managed to do 20 years ago.
They’re certainly looking good with players such as 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann. Both sides have done phenomenal work this World Cup and haven’t needed extra time to get the job done. France topped their group, drawing to the Danes and beating Australia and Peru. They then proceeded to beat a battling Argentina 4-3, before seeing off Uruguay 2-0.
England have surprised many making it this far after many dismal displays in past international tournaments. They’ve had a positive competition thus far, having qualified for the semis with a game against Belgium to come. They just managed to squeeze three points out of Tunisia in their opening 2-1 victory, before taking brushing aside Panama 6-1.
Colombia seemed their first real threat, but after taking the game to penalties, they managed to get through, after Kane got England’s only goal of the game, which has set him up for the Golden Boot with a personal goal tally of six goals. England cranked up the heat against a Swedish side that came in as underdogs, with England’s momentum carrying them forward into their first semifinal in 28 years.
Their most recent World Cup saw them knocked out in the group stages and the last time they won the tournament was back in 1966. However, manager Gareth Southgate has marvelously led them to this point with an extremely young yet enthusiastic and vibrant side hungry for success.
They take on a Croatian side that has showed its hand and presented its ability this tournament, with the likes of Luka Modrić, Mario Mandžukić and Ivan Rakitić. The Europeans gained all nine points on offer in the group stage, beating Nigeria, Iceland and most significantly, Argentina.
Denmark gave them a good run for their money, but they stood firm, holding their nerve in penalty shootouts. It set them in good stead as they needed to claim victory against hosts Russia in another penalty shootout against hosts Russia. The first time the Croatians were independent from Yugoslavia in the World Cup and the furthest they’ve been as an independent nation was in 1998 when they made the semifinals; eventually finishing in third place.
Since then, the group stage has been the best they have been able to do. Now, they have a real shot at making history and bringing home the ultimate footballing glory the nation has ever seen. They certainly have the team to do so.