We've reached the World Cup semifinals, and there's a lot on the line for all four remaining teams. Belgium, Croatia, England and France are all two wins away from an elusive World Cup title. They're two wins away from etching their names in the ...
We've reached the World Cup semifinals, and there's a lot on the line for all four remaining teams. Belgium, Croatia, England and France are all two wins away from an elusive World Cup title. They're two wins away from etching their names in the history books of the most popular sporting event in the world.
So, there's a lot at stake over the next week in Russia.
Still, while we all know what each team is playing for on the surface, each national team has its own separate story and motivation. Let's take a look at what's at stake for each squad before Tuesday and Wednesday's matches.
Belgium: Time for golden generation to deliver
The Red Devils don't have the most celebrated World Cup history. Their best finish since the event began in 1930 came in Mexico in 1986. Belgium reached the semifinals for the first time in its history that year. In fact, it was the first time the Belgians had ever advanced past the group stage. In the round of 16 it got past the Soviet Union with a 4-3 win, and in the quarterfinals, it squeaked by Spain on penalty kicks.
It was then that the Red Devils ran into Diego Maradona and Argentina in the semis and lost 2-0. They would face France in the third-place match and lose 4-2. So, in some sense, Belgium can get a bit of revenge on France for that third-place match, but that's not what's going to be on Belgium's mind.
While the country may not have a ton of success on the international stage (it also has a third-place finish in the 1972 Euros and was runner-up in 1980), there have been raised expectations in recent years thanks to Belgium's talent level. The team features players like Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Thomas Vermaelen and so on. Top players on the top clubs in Europe's best leagues, yet it hasn't been able to turn that talent into success. It didn't qualify for Euro 2012, went out in the quarters of the 2014 World Cup, and then out in the quarters of Euro 2016.
This is Belgium's chance to capitalize on all the talent it has, or else this Golden Age of Belgian Soccer may be looked back on in disappointment.
Croatia: The only Cinderella remaining
If there's a team left that fits the "playing on house money" narrative, it's Croatia. Everything is at stake, yet these Croatians have nothing to lose. They're the only remaining Cinderella in a World Cup that's already had a few candidates.
Croatia's international success is mainly non-existent (remember, Croatia wasn't a country eligible for the World Cup until 1994). By reaching the semis this year, it has already matched its greatest feat on the global stage. Croatia reached the semis in France in 1998. It was a situation not all that dissimilar to the 2018 World Cup. Croatia found itself in a Group with Argentina, Jamaica and Japan. This year the Croatians were in a group with Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria. The difference is they finished second to advance in 1998 and won their group this year.
They then went on to round of 16 and beat Romania 1-0, and shocked the world by beating Germany 3-0 in the quarters. After losing to host and eventual champion France in the semis, Croatia beat the Netherlands 2-1 to take home third place.
It has not gotten past the group stage since this year. It didn't even qualify in 2010.
Life in the Euros hasn't been much different, as Croatia reached the quarterfinals in 1996 and 2008, but that's that farthest it has ever gone.
So while every remaining squad is feeling some pressure, Croatia has the least weight on its shoulders. Everything from this point on is mostly gravy.
England: Lovable losers no more
There have been eight countries to win a World Cup, and England is one of the two remaining in this tournament. The problem is that the country that claims to have invented the sport as we know it today hasn't had a whole lot of international success since that 1966 World Cup title!
England finished third at both Euros 1968 and 1996. It reached the World Cup semis in 1990 where it lost to West Germany in penalties (a familiar theme for England in tournaments like this), and it's been nothing but heartbreak and disappointment since.
England didn't even qualify for the 1994 World Cup here in the United States, and it hadn't advanced past the quarterfinals since 2006 until this summer.
What Gareth Southgate's team has done in Russia is win its first knockout stage match since 2006, and win a game on penalties for the first time in its illustrious World Cup history. So some of the biggest dragons in England's path have already been slain, so in a sense, this is already a successful World Cup for England. But even if that's the case, England now finds itself in an unfamiliar position.
It's not only in the semis, but it's considered a heavy favorite to reach the final and is one of the two favorites along with France to win the entire thing. So suddenly the Lions have gone from soccer's version of Lovable Losers to a team that might feel like a bit of a disappointment if it doesn't win it all.
At the end of the day, England will still be home to what is likely the best league in the world, where a lot of the world's best players ply their craft, but it will all still ring a bit hollow without another World Cup title.
France: A seat at the table with world's elite
Like England, France is one of only eight countries to win a World Cup. Also like England, France has only won once. Unlike England, France has won at the Euros. In fact, it's done so twice (1984, 2000). Also unlike England, France has been close to victory in the World Cup on a few occasions only to fall just short of that second title.
In fact, of the three nations with one World Cup title (Spain is the third), one could argue that France has always seemed like the one country that should have won more. It should be the third European nation with multiple World Cups, joining Germany and Italy, but it just hasn't done so yet.
In 2006, France fell just short of its second World Cup, which resulted in Italy's fourth as the Italians beat the French in penalties. One of the worst ways to lose any match, let alone a World Cup final.
Overall, the semifinals have been rough on the French. Obviously, they got past them in both 1998 when they won it all, and in 2006 when they lost to Italy. But in 1958 the French lost to Brazil 5-2. France next returned to the semis in 1982 when it lost to West Germany on penalties. It would make it back to the semis again in 1986 where it would again lose to West Germany, this time 2-0.
Notice a theme to these defeats?
Brazil, the winner of five World Cups, knocked it out in 1958. West Germany, a winner of four World Cups, knocked it out in both 1982 and 1986. In 2006 it was the four-time champion Italy defeating France in the final.
Well, there is no Brazil, Germany or Italy remaining in France's path this year. It's the favorite to win it all at this point, and this is France's chance to legitimize what many have felt about it for so long.
If it wants to solidify its standing as a global power in the sport, this might be the best chance it has to do so for a long time.
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