France advanced to the final of the 2018 World Cup with a 1-0 victory over Belgium on Tuesday, which means Les Bleus will need an opponent for Sunday’s world champion-crowing clash in Moscow, Russia.
They’ll get one on Wednesday, when a pair of mild-to-medium surprises — England and Croatia — face off in the second semifinal at the Luzhniki Stadium, site of the final in four days’ time.
For one side, it’ll be the end of an unforgettable era in the 24-year (soccer) history of a country of just over 4 million people. For the other, the start of what could prove a redefining generation of young, affable players all pulling in the same direction.
For England, this tournament has been a tale of changing narratives and opinions, a team full of youngsters too green to know any better, a togetherness which has seen them through tough times, and the reversal of more than 20 years of major-tournament history and heartbreak.
Harry Kane has all but secured the Golden Boot after scoring six goals (three from the penalty spot, plus another conversion in the shootout triumph over Colombia) in the Three Lions’ first five games, but it was set-piece and aerial dominance that helped Gareth Southgate‘s side past Sweden in the quarterfinals on Saturday. Harry Maguire and Dele Alli headed past the Swedes en route to a 2-0 victory, guiding England to their first semifinal appearance since 1990, and just their third ever.
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Croatia, on the other hand, find themselves reaping the rewards — at long last — of a golden generation of players, who for so long teased with potential and promise, but never made good on their proverbial “dark-horse” status at major tournaments. Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic (295 international appearances between them) are all on the wrong side of 30 and could very well call full-time on their international careers after the weekend concludes. In short, this is it for them, a trio of indomitable legends in their homeland.
After winning back-to-back penalty shootouts to reach their second-ever (1998) World Cup semifinal, Croatia’s tank will be closer to empty than any of the four sides still competing in Russia, but Modric believes they can dig deep once more and qualify for the final.
“At certain times we lacked power but we played two times 120 minutes of football in six days,” he said this week. “Of course this will leave a mark on you. You have to pay the toll for such exertions. But thank God we’ve shown our character.”