And now only four remain.
The dream creating machines have started churning. It is time to believe. Time to fly.
Four countries have survived in the 2018 World Cup and all four have begun to dream. To believe. Of flying in the skies of immortalized gods.
For France, this is not new. The last twenty years have included finals full of heroes the French will never forget. And beyond that they have a full history of World Cup success. A fourth place finish in 1982. Third place in 1958 and 1986. Beaten finalists in 2006. Champions, of course, in 1998. The country is fresh off their Euro 2016 final defeat to Portugal on home soil. That memory surely has stayed with the players and drives them. This is not new, but it is different. This crop of high flyers and craftsmen seem determined to chart their own path. And they have looked incredible in the process. Rarely troubled this tournament, France set aside Uruguay, who were essentially doomed once Edinson Cavani was reduced to training gear on the sidelines, in the quarterfinal. There’s a feeling that France haven’t quite exploded yet, but that it is indeed going to happen. We saw flashes of it against Argentina in the Round of 16. We witnessed Kylian Mbappé turn on the jets and do whatever he wanted to. We witnessed the midfield hold steady with Paul Pogba asserting his strength and poise on the ball. But more importantly, we witnessed against Argentina and Uruguay the French defence emerge as the catalyst for this country. Raphaël Varane has been a soldier at the back. He looks comfortable and is shutting down attacks in much the same fashion as he does in Madrid for Real. And possibly the man who has done more than anyone to boost his profile this summer, Benjamin Pavard, is showing his class. This young Stuttgart defender is a beast. He plays like he has the experience he certainly doesn’t at 22 years old. As well as scoring an utter golazo against Argentina, Pavard has risen to be a reliable mainstay in the lineup and is locking up the right side of any foray into the French first third. With the ability to play in the middle of the back line and in midfield, somebody should just go ahead and pay up for him now. The back and front are clicking and that is why we are where we are. France are ready for a return to those gloriously heady weeks of 1998.
France will line up against Belgium (and French icon Thierry Henry in the dugout) on Tuesday for their mouth watering semifinal. Arguably the best side in this tournament form-wise, Belgium have found that next gear. Roberto Martínez, to his credit, made the requisite changes to the lineup (mainly sitting Yannick Carrasco, who has been criminally woeful, and playing an extra central midfielder — Marouane Fellaini — in order to allow Kevin de Bruyne the freedom of the attacking side of the pitch) and reaped the dividends. Belgium swept aside favorites Brazil with de Bruyne looking like the Ballon d’Or candidate he is. Eden Hazard finally opened up and looked world class every single touch on the ball. Those two are top 5 footballers (my list in order: Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard) when they want to be and if they are on song, the cup will be wrapped in red ribbons come Sunday. Their performance in the quarters was professional. That was an astonishingly talented Brazil side. A team that fell victim to their own emotions. The Brazilian downfall all tournament seemed to be their temperament. They never got going simply because the occasion and pressure just seemed to be too much. To put my point into perspective, it took Belgium scoring two goals in a knockout tie to finally unlock a now fearless Brazil squad with nothing to lose, and what we were privileged to see was sheer artistry. The final 30 minutes of that match saw a purring Seleção toy with an until then impenetrable Belgian core. The passing, the runs, the flicks and slaloming dances into danger were brush strokes on an unfortunately already damaged canvas. The goal came, beautifully at that with a deft header from Renato Augusto, as did the flurry of chances, most notably a flub from Philippe Coutinho and then a world beating save from Thibaut Courtois from Neymar’s peach of a curler destined to nestle into the top corner in injury time. It was a phenomenal battle. But the major takeaway was that Belgium held on and defeated the storied Brazilians. They have been tested and they have persisted. Twice. And now this golden generation of Belgians square off against the familiar French faces they regularly see during the season. Belgium will be without right wing back Thomas Meunier, who will be a massive miss, thanks to his suspension on cards. He has been reliable and aided the back 3 quite handily. Now we’ll see what Martínez can do as he shuffles his charges and tries to find a manner in which to contain the terrifying trio of Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. This is for everything and now Belgium get to dream of surpassing the magical team of 1986, which finished fourth and featured the likes of legendary captain Jan Ceulemans and a young Enzo Scifo, and going at least one step further. Tous ensemble !
There are no underdogs this deep into the tournament. The World Cup is not a creature of celebrating the inferior. No team has won the trophy without deserving it. The champion is almost always one of the two best teams that summer birthed. And this go round is no different. Croatia, Belgium and France (probably in that order) have been the best sides. They’ve played the best football, remained the most consistent and have been able to dominate for long stretches. So, it is no mystery as to why these teams find themselves one match away from the final. The winners will be the teams who extricate themselves from the moment and play football. There is no longer any time for so and so is better than so and so and blah blah blah. These matches will be decided by who can handle the pressure and perform. That’s it. All four are in a position to do something special, and all would be worthy champions, but that heroic country will be the one who puts the fans and coaches on their back and strides towards the light.
Croatia have had to do it the hard way of late. A dramatic penalty shootout victory against Denmark was followed up with even more drama and another penalties triumph against the hosts Russia. They have endured this tournament and need to call on their midfield to carry them for one last push into Sunday’s finale. Croatia have a young history but it is rich. It is steeped in a desire to put themselves on the map. To be recognized. To be respected. A third place finish their first time out in 1998 was up until last week thought to be the heights for this nation. A team that produced names still proudly (and heartily) sung about: Šuker, Štimac, Šimić, Boban, Bilić, Stanić. But, now they are back in the semis and have no yearnings at this late stage to turn back. They are no stranger to the big stage, but this time they come equipped with two of the best midfielders alive in Luka Modrić (widely disliked in Croatia due to his recent perjury charge and cronyism, but who will win the Golden Ball come the end of this Cup) and Ivan Rakitić. Their saviors. Through these two, the team propels forward where the likes of Ivan Perisić and Mario Mandzukić lurk hungrily with elite technique to finish. The Croatian players know full well, tricky politics aside, they have a country back home united in their prayers for the biggest sporting day in the Balkan country’s history. A World Cup would be a crown jewel in their troubled past and present. And this knowledge of this pressure is a cross they carry, but it has spurred them on thus far. England stand in their way towards history, but confidence is sky high and there frankly is no time for fear.
England are starting to believe, too. And if not now, then when? This team is young and they quite simply don’t give a good goddamn about what you may think English football is about. This is their chapter, a brand new one, of a story that has been in the throes of being told for over a century. The history begins here. The home of football just merely wants it back. But, none of that usual baggage that weighed down teams of yore applies here. Gareth Southgate has this fun loving crew relaxed and completely focused on playing their style of football. And that style is fluid, highly skilled and forward minded. England may not boast the world class talent of the others left, in fact outside of Harry Kane the side lacks a true world class player full stop, but they have bonded and they have meshed to the point where every single one of them is starting to dream. The back 3 are all having flat out blinders. Harry Maguire and John Stones are convincing me they’re Italian. Kyle Walker has recovered from his blunder against Tunisia early on and has steadied the ship on the right. Kieran Trippier as a wing back is shining. Jordan Henderson in the middle of the park is the rock that he was for Liverpool on their journey to the Champions League final. Jesse Lingard is fearless and playing with the ease of a Saturday morning kickabout. And then we have Kane. The Golden Boot leader with six is the most potent and dangerous striker left in the fold. He is a proper nightmare and if he finds space…that’s that. It is all there. It is not a question of will they do it but can they do it. Can this team play together, composure in tact, for 90 minutes or more? Can they overcome the inexperience and quality of the opposition? England certainly have the talent and the momentum, but now they need the bravery and balance. If they can play their game, if they can show up on the pitch as they are capable of doing, then the heavens are the limit.
You spend your whole life dreaming. Dreaming of lifting that golden trophy. Watching your favorite players striving for it. The ups and downs of tournament football define your childhood. The hope defines your life. The belief keeps you going. And going. And going. And then one day you ask yourself if things will ever be.
The French, Belgians, Croatians and English are all asking that question. With only two World Cup triumphs between them all, we have a distinct opportunity for a champion who can refresh this game. Four attractive, devoted teams fighting to make their country aware that it was undoubtedly worth the wait.
Now is the time to dream. Believe. And fly to heights we never knew could be reached.
Come on then!