The 2018 FIFA World Cup has thrown up a most unlikely semifinals line-up. It is the first time in the history of the tournament that not one among Brazil, Argentina and Germany has made the last four. Instead, France, Belgium, England and Croatia have entered the final week of the competition. That all four semifinalists are European — this happened last in 2006 — has caused some concern for the health of South American football, but it is misguided to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of one tournament. France did not get out of first gear in the group stages but burst into life in the round of 16, subduing a ramshackle Argentina, before battling past Uruguay. This French squad is blessed with enormous resources and its semifinal meeting with Belgium should make for a riveting spectacle. The latter, for long guilty of underachievement, produced some unfettered, attacking football against Brazil in the quarterfinals, dumping the five-time champion out. A side with the combined talents of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku is never a total outsider, but Belgium’s history of poor tournament results led its victory to be somewhat unexpected. The Seleção arrived in Russia as one of the favourites, and although coach Tite’s men lost in the quarterfinals only by the finest of margins, nothing less than the World Cup is acceptable in Brazil.
In the other half of the draw, a young England side’s progress — a first semifinal appearance since 1990 — has captivated a nation accustomed to disappointment. Fans used to mocking their own misfortune are now in the grip of an extraordinary fever. A first-ever penalty shoot-out victory at a World Cup, against Colombia in the round of 16, was followed by an untroubled win over Sweden, sparking a joyous outbreak of national pride. Croatia, a country of just over four million, booked its spot with a heart-stopping shoot-out defeat of Russia. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, a pair of elegant midfielders, should be more than a match for the English. The home side — dubbed its worst-ever before the World Cup — put on a grand show for home audiences, eliminating Spain in the round-of-16. Russia fell in love with football, which made for atmospheric crowds up and down the land. This World Cup was seen as a last chance for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to lift the trophy; neither will have that fortune this time. Nor will Neymar, Brazil’s talismanic striker with a penchant for play-acting. There is instead an opportunity for the likes of Hazard, Harry Kane and the fleet-footed teenager Kylian Mbappe to achieve sporting immortality. This has truly been a World Cup of surprises.
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