World Cup Preview: France v Croatia

Who? France - Croatia
Where? Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
When? July 15, 17:00 (CET local time)

France (Omri Tancman)

During the round of 16 match between France and Argentina, Benjamin Pavard made a small history. He was the first French defender in 20 years to score a goal in an official match. The last one was Lilian Thuram. Interestingly, the game in which Thuram scored was at the semi-final of 1998 World Cup in France. The rival was no other than Croatia, their rival in this final.

The comparison to Thuram and the resemblance to him was something referred to by Pavard himself as well. In a recent interview, he stated the fact that like Thuram he is also playing for his club as a central defender while in the national team he deploys as a right back. When asked about his future, he admitted that he would love to have the same career as Thuram made and he serves as an inspiration for him.

Thuram himself was full of compliments towards the young prodigy. Pavard played with Thuram’s son in the U-19 Euro 2015 for France, and already then he showed his great football intelligence, according to Thuram. After the match against Argentina, Thuram was even more impressed. It was not only by Pavard's goal but also by the fact that he was impressive as a starter, even though he was just a sub before the tournament, like Thuram in Euro 1996.

Thuram’s goal against Croatia is one of his greatest moments without any doubt, but what gave Thuram a long successful career was his consistent premium ability on defense. If Pavard wishes to be the next Thuram, like many expect of him, he can start by stopping Croatian star winger Perisic, even if he will not score against Croatia, like Thuram.

 Benjamin Pavard, wants to walk on the road of the legends (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Benjamin Pavard, wants to walk on the road of the legends (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Croatia (Eden Roitfarb)

It’s not a dream, it’s a reality. Croatia are in the World Cup final for the first time! After dominating the group stage with 3 wins out of 3, the Croatians completed another triple in the knockout stages: Every game went to extra time, and after two penalty shootout victories, England have succumbed to a Mario Mandžukić goal that completed history.

It was yet another heroic performance by a side that is constantly overlooked by other teams and foreign media, but the truth is that Croatia’s achievements are remarkable since they gained independence and they should be considered a part of world football’s elite nations, regardless of Sunday’s score. Since the beginning of the 2018 World Cup, and especially after the thrashing of Argentina, the feeling was that 1998 is happening all over again. The Vatreni finished 3rd that summer, and now they face the same French team who broke their hearts – as Lilian Thuram scored a rare brace for the hosts to cancel Davor Šuker’s opener that night in the Stade de France. Back to 2018, Croatia already overcame the host obstacle after eliminating Russia, and they will want to come full circle by conquering their French demons as well.

This task would be more difficult than ever. Despite showing incredible strength and resilience, it is inevitable that fatigue is going to play a factor in the final. Facing an athletic French team with one of the youngest squads in this tournament, who also enjoy an extra day of rest, can be too much to handle for the Croatians who are the first team in World Cup history to play three extra times in a row. However, in common Eastern European fashion, you can count on Croatia to give it all – as they surely can recognize the importance and rarity of the moment. After all, they have almost failed to qualify to the World Cup due to a tumultuous campaign that was full of internal disputes and poor football, and only the appointment of coach Zlatko Dalić sparked a crucial last gasp victory in Ukraine to reach the playoffs. Surely, no one would have thought the relatively unknown Dalić, who spent the previous 7 years in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, could take this side so far. Perhaps France are favorites, according to most experts, but this just might be Croatia’s moment. Zagreb is waiting to burst into celebrations.

 Zlatko Dalic, from being unknown to a historic World Cup final (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Zlatko Dalic, from being unknown to a historic World Cup final (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

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World Cup Preview: Belgium v England

Who? Belgium - England
Where? Krestovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg
When? July 14, 16:00 (CET local time)

Belgium (Omri Tancman)

The last time Belgium and England met was a couple of weeks ago. In the final match of group H, Belgium and England sent their substitutes to the pitch and let their starters to rest. Here they meet again and one player who will be glad to receive the same opportunity he had in the group stage is Adnan Januzaj.

Not so long ago, Januzaj was considered as the future of Belgian football and as potential world-class superstar. In the season of 2013-2014 Januzaj emerged as a promising wonder kid for Manchester United. However, a series of bad performances and moreover, unsuccessful spells of loans led to a situation in which Januzaj is considered a bit like yesterday’s news. It is funny to say such thing on a 23 years old player but it is one of the symptoms of modern football.

Januzaj represents modern football in other ways as well. Current modern European football is overloaded with players having double and sometimes even triple nationalities, which can chose for who they want to play in their international career. Januzaj took this trend to the limit, and in early stages of his career he had the option to play for no less than 7 different countries. Januzaj’s family and especially his father were very vocal about the issue and the main dilemma was between Belgium and Kosovo, Januzaj’s father’s place of birth.

Januzaj chose eventually to represent Belgium and he was expected to be already one of the leading stars of the team. However, this has not happened yet. Maybe the upcoming match against England can join the previous and will create an awkward restart for Januzaj’s career.

 Adnan Januzaj, looking for a restart to his career (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Adnan Januzaj, looking for a restart to his career (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

England (Yossi Medina)

It's the end of the English dreams. They already touched it, felt that this is their chance, but England lost against Croatia and didn't qualified for the World Cup final. Yet, England can be proud in their performance during this tournament and now they need to look forward.

A quick look on the English squad can tell the story of their bright future. Harry Kane was the captain of the team at the age of 24 and many other players are younger than 26. The squad is composed of many players that will probably play be part of the next campaigns of England and will lead them to their next success.

More than the current squad, England is working hard for building the team. In the last year, England made history as their youth teams won both U-20 and U-17 World Cups. Some of the players that played at the U-20 World Cup final against Venezuela already played at the Premier league such as the winning goal scorer, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and one of the dominant players in this tournament, Dominic Solanke.

It's part of a long-term plan of the FA. England realized that in order to reach the level they wish, they need to work harder. While other European countries such as France, Spain and Belgium made tremendous progress, England kept by somehow their old-fashioned style. These days are over and England now looks for make their dreams come true.

England showed us that maybe the national team has finally changed. Reaching the semi finals with such a young team can bring hope that England can do more with this generation. Yet, there is always that the team will crush with the rising expectations and two years from now, in Euro 2020, England will have another disappointment. No matter what will happen, the fans will always have the same refrain in their hearts, "it's coming home". One day, it may really come home.

 English fan holds the World Cup, maybe one day it will be real (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

English fan holds the World Cup, maybe one day it will be real (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

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World Cup in a Car

The semi-final between France and Belgium in St. Petersburg was a high-quality sporting event, with a strange atmosphere.

Instead of thousands of fans from the two European countries that would have make a passionate atmosphere, many seats in the stadiums were bald, and in general - there were much more Brazilians, Argentines and Peruvians in the stands- than French and Belgian fans. Not that they are not a good fans, but if they don’t really care about the game, you can feel it.

That's it. There are two more games left for this World Cup. The game on three-four places, then - the final.

Where did the European fans disappear in this tournament? Not sure we can precisely.

The English, for example, who are arriving to any big tournament in the tens of thousands, were present with just a few thousands. Still - one of the most amazing fans’ stories in Russia, is how not, involving an English football fan.

Meet Andrew Flint, an English guy who lives in Siberia, writes about football, and decided to experience this World Cup, with its tens of thousands of miles - in a car. So he drove, and met Uri in Saint Petersburg this week for a short talk. Watch or listen or both to our second video podcast from Russia.

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World Cup Preview: Croatia v England

Who? Croatia - England
Where? Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
When? July 11, 20:00 (CET local time)

Croatia (Eden Roitfarb)

Following the quarter final victory over Russia in penalties, Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić has tweeted a short yet simple message: “Small Nation, Big Dreams”. As one of the smallest and youngest nations around in this World Cup, it is quite amazing to see the pride and hunger of the squad on one hand, and the buzz and support from the Croatian nation on the other hand. Even President Kolinda Grabar -Kitarović has joined the party and was seen dancing in front of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev after Domagoj Vida’s go-ahead goal in extra time.

Speaking of the Croatian defender, he has created a massive political controversy after he was being recorded saying “Glory to Ukraine” in a post-game video, along with assistant coach and former international Ognjen Vukojević. Both have played in the past for Ukrainian side Dynamo Kyiv and used this phrase that became popular in 2014 after conflict broke out with Russia. Just like Swiss players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri earlier in the tournament, Vida was fined for political provocation. Vukojević, however, was relieved from his duties following the incident. This is the second time a member of the Vatreni is sent home this summer, as striker Nikola Kalinić left the squad following his refusal to enter as a substitute vs Nigeria. Considering Croatia look fatigued after 2 grueling matches, Kalinić might be regretting his actions.

On Wednesday, Croatia face England in the Semi Finals. These two sides haven’t been in this stage for a long time, but both hold some good and bad memories from one another: In the Euro 2008 qualifications, Croatia beat England twice: 2-0 in Zagreb, and an iconic 3-2 win in Wembley – a result that left England out of the Euro’s. However, the Three Lions responded in the 2010 World Cup qualifications by thumping Croatia 4-1 and 5-1, thus denying the Balkan’s the chance to go to South Africa. For tonight’s matchup, two players who can be crucial for Croatia’s success are Luka Modrić and Vedran Ćorluka, who played together for English side Tottenham Hotspur – and know well some of their former Spurs counterparts that play today for England, such as Harry Kane, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose.

The Croatians arrive in Moscow for the first time this tournament and would want to stay in town until at least Sunday night – as they look to make their biggest dream yet come true.

 Croatia, running for the next stage (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Croatia, running for the next stage (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

England (Yossi Medina)

In the last weeks, you just can't ignore the pride of the English people. The chants of Football's Coming Home can be heard everywhere and the confidence in the ability of this team to make history is high. Nobody missed the chance to congratulate the team. After the win against Colombia in the round of 16, one message was not really welcomed by the fans.

UKIP is not one of the biggest parties in the British politics, but it's definitely well known in the country. One of their main objectives is to change the immigration policy in the UK. Instead of being based on political decisions such as membership in the European Union, UKIP wants to change the process in order to ensure that only skilled people could immigrate to the country.

Their celebrations with England's success made a huge controversy. The Migration Museum of London decided to reply them with a poster. The poster described how England's lineup would look without immigrant or their descendants. Out of the 11 lineup players of England against Colombia, only four left as "native" English. Surprisingly, you couldn't find the scorer of the decisive penalty from that match, Eric Dier, who grew up in Portugal, and the leading scorer, Harry Kane, that his father is Irish.

Even in such a conservative football nation as England, immigrants became an integral part of the team. At the last match, another interesting player scored. Dele Ali was born in Milton Keynes, but his father is Nigerian and he even lived in the country for two years.

This combination is one of the important things that leads England to their current position. It's more than the usual story of players who are playing for the same flag. It's a mixture of cultures and races in one team. Even though they all sing loud and proud for their queen before any match, each one of them have its own story in their journey to make history.

Since 1966, England never played in a major tournament final. They lost three time since then – against Yugoslavia in Euro 1968, against Italy in 1990 World Cup and the last time was in Euro 1996 against Germany. The last person who felt the misery of missing a final was the current manager, Gareth Southgate, who missed the last penalty against Germany. A manager who is part from history of English disappointments and players that arrived to the country as part from its historic successes, all know that they have one mission tonight: reaching the final.

 England before the match against Sweden, a mixture of cultures (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

England before the match against Sweden, a mixture of cultures (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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World Cup Preview: France v Belgium

Who? France - Belgium
Where? Krestovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg
When? July 10, 20:00 (CET local time)

When thinking about a semi-final between France and Belgium the first thing that might come to mind is the rivalry between them. After all, they have played each other more than 70 times. Their last World Cup meeting was in 1986 in the match for third place. It was the last time Belgium have reached the semi-final of a World Cup. Moreover, besides football, there is some cultural rivalry between both nations. This rivalry is reflected in popular jokes in France about Belgian stupidity, including a whole genre called Belgian jokes. In other fields, people from both nations can still fight over the origin of fries, or about the fact that some national Belgian icons such as Herge and Jacques Brel were adopted and, in a way, “hijacked” by French culture.

All those disagreements are very small at the end of the day. Underneath them lies a truth that might not be very pleasant for some French or Belgians to hear. The truth is that they are very similar in many aspects, and language is not the only one. One field in which the similarities are very vivid is football.

Both teams have gone through similar processes in the last years and their arrival to semi-finals reflects it. These processes can be summed up to three aspects: 1. Long term investment in youth systems and players. 2. Weakness of the local league and export of players to stronger leagues. 3. Inclusion of second-generation immigrants in sports.

As for France, the name of Clairefontaine academy is well known, with former star players such as Anelka and Henry coming from it. In the current French squad several players got their football education there, such as Matuidi, Mbappe and Giroud, all starters in this World Cup. While France is known for years already for youth programs and development of young talents, the Belgian case is a bit more complicated. After suffering from several bad years in the late nineties, the Belgian football federation decided to heavily invest in future football generation. This investment was made through a thoroughly structured plan. The aim was to identify and develop talented players while keeping them in a solid tactical structure staring from early ages. One key element of this plan was to enable young talents to play as much as they can, so they will be able to demonstrate their talents.

 Mbappe and Giroud, grew up in Clairfontaine (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Mbappe and Giroud, grew up in Clairfontaine (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

This demonstration led to a situation that is common for Belgian and French football. The situation is reflected by the weakness of the local league, which serves as a contrast to the strength of players playing outside their homeland. The best example is seen nowadays in Russia. Only one out of 22 first XI players of Belgium and France in their quarter final matches, Kylian Mbappe, is playing in his local league.

Besides a young generation of world class talents and massive export of this talent outside, Belgian and French football share another important aspect in common. Out of 23 players in each squad, 18 players in France, and 11 players in Belgium belong to different communities of immigrants. In both countries, immigration is a very delicate issue and football reflects it. In France, for example, right wing leader Le Pen criticized Raymond Domenech in 2006 for selecting too many black players. In Belgium, star striker Lukaku admitted that when he was younger he suffered from racism and doubts about his age. Moreover, Lukaku whose father is Congolese, stated that he himself feels that when things are not going so well, suddenly he is no longer referred to as Lukaku the Belgian striker, but Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.

Therefore, it might not be surprising that one of Lukaku’s best friends is one of his rivals this semi-final, Pogba. Pogba, son of immigrants as well, has suffered from racism in several occasions, including in France itself due to his immigrant and Muslim background. But like Lukaku, he represents a new generation of players who are not ashamed of their origins.

Lukaku and Pogba serve as a good reflection of football in Belgium and France. They emerged as young talents in their countries, benefited from high-quality training programs and went as young kids to play outside their country. Furthermore, as second-generation immigrants, they represent the impact football has on society in France and Belgium. As two high profile stars for their national teams, they represent the process each country has made with its football as well as common processes in both countries. But more than everything, they are a symbol for both nations that after a long period of waiting and preparing, their future starts now.

 Romelu Lukaku, the face of the new Belgian team (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Romelu Lukaku, the face of the new Belgian team (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

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World Cup Preview: Russia v Croatia

Who? Russia - Croatia
Where? Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
When? July 6, 20:00 (CET local time)

Croatia

One of the biggest fears in Croatia, following the impressive group stage domination, was another round of 16 mental collapse that comes as a result of some big expectations – similar to what happened in Euro 2016: Portugal, the eventual winners, came as underdogs vs Croatia and eliminated them.

 That scenario was very close to repeat itself, as Denmark put everything on the line and pulled the Croatians all the way to the penalties. At the 115th minute, Luka Modrić sent an amazing ball to Ante Rebić, who found himself facing and empty net – but was fouled at the last moment before scoring. Modrić missed the penalty, the game went to penalty kicks to decide the winner, and the momentum suddenly felt Danish. For many, this reminded the Uruguay – Ghana quarter finals from 2010, when Luis Suarez’s handball and Gyan Asamoah’s missed penalty broke the Ghanaian’s mentally. Moreover, The Croatian’s had a Deja-vu from the Euro 2008 quarter finals, as they scored a 119th minute goal vs Turkey, only to concede an equalizer a minute later and then losing in penalties.

This time, it wasn’t that case – Croatia won in penalties. It was an emotional rollercoaster, and even Modrić scored his penalty from the shootout. The game in Nizhny Novogrod proved, more than anything, that the Croatians have great character. Now they face hosts Russia in the quarter finals and feel there is a chance to continue dreaming. As memories of the 1998 World Cup continue, it’s time to remind the Vatreni that they were eliminated in that tournament by the hosts France in the semifinals, so perhaps its time to look at 2018 as a chance to make new and better history.

 Luka Modric, missed a penalty in extra time but managed to score in the shootout (Getty Images)

Luka Modric, missed a penalty in extra time but managed to score in the shootout (Getty Images)

Russia

The other half of this European derby has also qualified to the quarter finals in thrilling fashion. Russia faced the heavily favored Spain and set a very good defensive structure that forced the Spaniards into producing a lackluster passing fest. Yet, the Russian’s also needed to show mental strength. An own goal by 39-year-old Sergei Ignashevich forced Russia to attack, and they responded with a blitz towards the end of the first half. It led to a penalty equalizer by Artem Dzyuba. Ignashevich overcame his own demons, and himself produced a tough defensive display, along with goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev – who was the penalty shootout hero eventually.

As a youngster, Akinfeev looked set to become a world class goalkeeper. He won the 2005 UEFA Cup with CSKA Moscow and produced stunning performances such as keeping a clean sheet away vs Arsenal in the Champions League a year later. That game proved to be a turning point, as he conceded in 43 consecutive Champions League games. Akinfeev was ridiculed and became a laughing stock and has also symbolized the uncompetitive nature of the modern Russian footballer who preferred to stay at home and enjoy earning easy money rather than moving to play in Western Europe. But now, after helping the national team beat Spain in front of the home fans, he has cemented his place in Russian football folklore.

Akinfeev and Ignashevich will play their 550th game together vs Croatia, an astonishing number, as Russia will try to keep the dream alive – and they can gain optimism from the fact that Croatia are 0 from 2 vs World Cup hosts. The Spaniards, whom they defeated on Sunday, have also never beat a World Cup host previously. Ironically, Sochi’s distance from Zagreb and Moscow is almost similar – but it is definite the Russian fans are all in with their team now.

 Igor Akinfeev, another important part in the history of the Russian football (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Igor Akinfeev, another important part in the history of the Russian football (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

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World Cup Preview: Sweden v England

Who? Sweden - England
Where? Samara Arena, Samara
When? July 6, 16:00 (CET local time)

Sweden

In 1994, Sweden made one of its best World Cup, as they reached the semi finals. Since then, Sweden played in seven major tournaments and their best achievements were the round of 16 in the World Cup and reaching quarter finals in the Euro. Now Sweden is facing an option to get one step forward in their way.

Sweden will play against England, a clash that make them fell a bit comfortable. They already played against England twice at the World Cup, in the group stage of 2002 and 2006, and in both occasions the games were tied. If you consider also games in the Euro, Sweden also won one of two matches between the teams. So Sweden's record against England is seems to be not bad at all.

Sweden will need to play without Mikael Lustig who got his second yellow card in the World Cup during the match against Switzerland. The one who will take his place as the right-back is Emil Krafth, that is only 23 years old but already have a lot of experience in international level. Even though he made only 14 international caps for the senior team, he began his international career in the U-21 team while he was just 17 years old.

After the defeat against Germany, nobody thought that Sweden could go so far. Now, after two games without conceding and with the strong defensive style, Sweden are close to make another amazing match.

 Emil Krafth, will replace the suspended Lustig (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Emil Krafth, will replace the suspended Lustig (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

England

Talks about football's coming home are just becoming louder. The game against Colombia finished with England's first ever win by penalty shootouts and now, if you want and if you don't, everyone believe that it's possible.

Once again, the main name is Harry Kane. In the previous match, Kane scored in a bit controversial penalty, but now it doesn't matter. Kane scored his 6th goal in the tournament, and now he is the best English scorer in a single World Cup alongside with Gary Lineker's 6 goals in 1986. If he will score once more, he will reach another milestone, as since 1978 only one player scored at least 7 goals in a single World Cup – it was Ronaldo in 2002.

After the winning against Colombia, Eric Dier became the hero of England. Dier, who scored the decisive penalty, is by somehow not the traditional English player. He didn't played in England until the age of 20, as he lived in Portugal and played in the youth teams of Sporting Lisbon. Yet, he played for England youth teams and even played together with Harry Kane in the U-20 World Cup.

England didn't had a great match against Colombia and they actually enjoyed a bad performance of Los Cafeteros. If England would not improve their playing level, they couldn't handle such a strong opponent as Sweden. England will have their chance to show the best of their skills, unless it will be the end of their dreams.

 Eric Dier, different kind of English player (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Eric Dier, different kind of English player (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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World Cup Preview: Brazil v Belgium

Who? Brazil - Belgium
Where? Kazan Arena, Kazan
When? July 6, 20:00 (CET local time)

Brazil (Vitor Buratini Mendes)

The history of Brazil and Belgium is completely positive for A Seleção. In four matches, Brazil won four times, and the last one was the most striking and important. In the round of 16 of 2002 World Cup, the last time Brazil won the World Cup, Brazil defeated the Belgian national team 2:0. In this match, the Ronaldo and Rivaldo scored, the two main players of that team. A forward and a midfielder. Will we see a repeat by Neymar and Coutinho?

If the Brazil will keep to improve like in the previous matches, it may happen. In the last match, against Mexico, the Mexican played 25 minutes of pressure. However since then only Brazil played, with scoring two goals in the second half. One of them was after a great play by Willian, that had been criticized for his performances in the previous matches. The other, scored by Firmino, that many believe that he must be in the lineup for the next matches. Changing the team or not, in the next match probably all the players will be available for Brazil except from one player, Danilo, who would not return to play in this tournament. Douglas Costa is expected to return to the bench after recovering from injury.

The expectations among the Brazilians are great. The excitement of the fans is increasing in every match and everyone believes that winning the title is really possible. It is also amazing to see how much support the Brazilians get is in other countries. All this positive energy, coming from all over the world is very important. The Brazilian people are grateful and hope that the team will give them love back.

 Brazil, getting better in every match (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Brazil, getting better in every match (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Belgium (Omri Tancman)

The first and last time Brazil and Belgium met in an official match was in 2002. Belgium lost 2-0 and Brazil continued on to lift the trophy and become world champions. From this squad there are no remains and the current golden generation of Belgian football was built on the ashes of this team after a long term program.

In the last world cup, Belgium met another South American team in quarter finals, Argentina, and lost 1-0 prior to its elimination. Based on these results, some might argue that the Belgians are losers who have no chances against South American teams. However, when considering the current match up with Brazil, Belgium has in a way a secret weapon on their bench. From all personnel in current Belgian national team the only one who has ever one Brazil is Thierry Henry.

Much has been talked recently about the contribution of Henry to the Belgian national squad. Different topics were heavily analyzed, from his relationship with Lukaku, to his mental influence and attacking vision and coaching ability. But besides all of this, sometimes what is needed is just to consult with someone who already knows how to do it.

In this case, there is no doubt that Henry, who scored the winning goal in the 1-0 win of France against Brazil in 2006, is a very good address. Even without magically turning Kevin de Bruyne to Zinadine Zidane, no one doubts that with the know-how Henry possesses, he can give this squad the small edge they missed in previous stages such as this.

 Thierry Henry, brings his experience to Belgium (Alex Morton/Getty Images)

Thierry Henry, brings his experience to Belgium (Alex Morton/Getty Images)

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World Cup Preview: Uruguay v France

Who? Uruguay - France
Where? Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
When? July 6, 16:00 (CET local time)

Uruguay (Gilad Seroussi)

We are still on our journey! It was very difficult, Uruguay even conceded a goal for the first time in Russia 2018, but in the end the European champions couldn't breach the formidable Uruguayan defense that kept its marginal advantage until the final whistle. On we go to our next battle, and each time the bar is set higher, now facing the mighty French who sent Uruguay's neighbors home.

Tabarez is satisfied with the formation and style of play in the last two games; a combative take of the traditional Diamond formation, with Bentancur as the untraditional No. 10. But upfront there will probably be an important change, as it doesn't seem likely that Cavani, el Matador, will be fit for the important match. Maybe not in his most clinical version in the group stages, but Cavani is playing very well so far in the World Cup and scored the last 3 goals for Uruguay. In recent training sessions Stuani took Cavani's place alongside Suarez, and he will probably do so against France. While not as good as Cavani, Stuani had a terrific season in Girona, arguably the best in his career, and he will add protection when defending set pieces and threat in attacking set plays; something not to be treated lightly, as it's probably Uruguay's main threat apart from the quick transitions. 

Without El Matador, Laxalt's brilliant performance in the last couple of games will be even more crucial for Uruguay's quick attacking efforts. Another key player is Lucas Torreira, who will need to fight off, again, the opponent's midfield and attacking lines packed with quality and physically intimidating players (not only for the 1.78 meters youngster). He did really well before, but as I said the bar is set higher now.

If in the group stage I could have written about Uruguay under the new label of "favorites", this label is long gone by now. But they've won the respect of their opponents being a formidable, tough and organized team, where each player runs until he can't run anymore. Once again Uruguay will set off to prove it's not only about talent and individuals.  Vamos Uruguay noma!

 Christian Stuani, will need to take the place of Cavani (Joe Klamar / AFP)

Christian Stuani, will need to take the place of Cavani (Joe Klamar / AFP)

France (Omri Tancman)

When thinking of one French player who could easily be integrated and blended within the Uruguayan national team, one name comes up immediately and that is Antoine Griezmann. For Griezmann the blending goes far beyond his ability. In his case, the blending is cultural and historical.

After being rejected from several clubs in France when he was younger, Griezmann decided to cross the border and take his chances with Spanish club Real Sociedad. The first coach who gave him any chances was a Uruguayan, Martin Lasarte. Furthermore, one of his closest teammates at the time, who used to drive him to practices was Uruguayan either, Carlos Bueno. Bueno and Griezmann have established friendly relationship, and one of their current results is Griezmann’s habit to drink Mate, the famous South American drink.

But Griezmann’s ties to Uruguay do not end with his period in Sociedad. Since 2014 he is collaborating with Uruguay’s starting center backs, Godin and Jimenez. Apparently, these close ties and maybe somewhat South American fighting mentality of Griezmann, enabled him to even tweet some cheerful tweets supporting his fellow Uruguayan teammates which will become rivals on Friday.

With the last two meetings in world cups between France and Uruguay ending scoreless, perhaps the best man to break the draught is the one who knows best is opponents from the inside. In this case it is Greizmann.

 Griezmann alongside with Godin, need to leave his friendhips away before this match (Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

Griezmann alongside with Godin, need to leave his friendhips away before this match (Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

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Wind of Change

What is the place of the media in our life? Can headlines shape consciousness about places, cultures or people?

The answer is yes.  Definitely yes. One of the interesting things about this World Cup is that there is not a large number of European fans in Russia. Just very few of them. For example, England, who regularly sends around 30,000 fans to big tournaments, arrived in Moscow in a timid 3,500 fans.

The majority of fans come from Latin America, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. How does that happen? The answer might be a large amount of negative articles in English about the bad side, that it is there is, in Russia, and less articles, or not at all, pieces that highlight things that are good in the country.

This prevented many people who consume only English media to arrive in Russia, and in general placed a very specific state of mind about the 2018 World Cup host.

Before the tournament, many people had concerns. The country, the culture, the corruption, the racism, the hooligans and violence in local football were the first things to come in mind when mentioning the Russian World Cup. To their surprise, the tournament has been going through in an excellent atmosphere with almost zero racist incidents. Does it mean that everything is okay in Russia? What is the real impact of this event on the host country? And most importantly - whether it is going to stay this way after it’s over?

In order to find out more, BabaGol met Robert Ustian, a Russian guy from Abkhazia, the entrepreneur behind CSKA Fans Against Racism, who talked with us about media, stereotypes, how to fight racism and stay sympathetic to your club, as well as the real meaning of this World Cup for Russia & the West, and the challenges that follow it.

Part 1:

Part 2:

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Open the Stadiums

One of the strongest social movements that has developed in Iran through football, is the one that fight for the right of Iranian women to enter to stadium in the country, and specifically for the Iran national team games. Iran is one of the few countries in the world that does not allow women to watch men's football matches from the stadium.

In every game in Azadi, there are women dressed as men that try to enter the stadium. Some of these attempts are successful, but most of them end with arrest. There was also a film about the phenomena in 2006, 'Offside', whose director Jafar Panahi trialed for 20 years ban of publishing videos, pictures or texts and allegedly six years imprisonment. Luckily, he managed to leave Iran before the punishment was given.

 Women are trying to into the stadium dressed as men (@openStadiums in Twitter)

Women are trying to into the stadium dressed as men (@openStadiums in Twitter)

"We are trying to raise this subject to global awareness so that there will be pressure on the government to change the situation," says Shaharzad (fake name), the one who manages the Open Stadiums twitter account, who has been promoting the agenda of women's entry to stadiums in Iran since 2009. "When I started, there were many educated people who did not like it. They did not consider entering a football game as part of women's rights in Iran,” she adds. "Today it is clear to everyone what should be, and when the national team coach and captain, Carlos Quieroz & Masoud Shojaei, talk about it openly in a press conference supporting the movement, on a stage like the World Cup, it clearly brings us closer to our goal."

Shahrazad shares the personal experience from Russia. "The game in St. Petersburg against Morocco was my first time in a football stadium, and I do not even know how to describe how it feels," she tells BabaGol with excited eyes. "This World Cup and this team are excellent ambassadors for our movement. We are growing, but we need more people to know about it. Today people in every country in the world know that in Iran the women are struggling to see football, and very soon people around the world know and want us to succeed.”

Amen.

 Women in Azadi during the World Cup, when these change will be completed? (@openStadium in Twitter)

Women in Azadi during the World Cup, when these change will be completed? (@openStadium in Twitter)

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World Cup Preview: Colombia v England

Who? Colombia - England
Where? Otkritie Arena, Moscow
When? July 3, 20:00 (CET local time)

Colombia (Idan Seggev)

June 26th 1998. Colombia and England meet at the Stade Felix-Bollaert in Lens for the last match in the group stage. Colombia needed a win in order to qualify but they lost 0-2. A goal by Darren Anderton and a magnificent free kick by the young star, David Beckham, finished the Colombian dream and the era of Carlos Valderrama, who played his last match with the yellow jersey.

July 3rd, 2018. 20 years later and both national teams will meet again, this time in the round of 16 of 2018 World Cup. Unlike the past, this time there is a feeling that Colombia can do it. The potential of this squad is big and with all the respect, the English team haven't show something extraordinary that makes Colombia's mission impossible. Add the fact that since his appointment as Colombia's coach, Pekerman never lost a game against European teams: six wins and two draws against teams such as Spain, Belgium, Holland and France.

The main question is whether James will be fit or not. Against Senegal he had to be replaced after only 31 minutes. After an examination by the team's doctor, the Colombian federation announced that he would be fit for the match. Meanwhile, Pekerman tried at the practice a lineup without James but with three defensive midfielders: Carlos Sanchez, Uribe and Barrios. Although most chances that James will play, even without him it's hard to believe that Pekerman will use such a defensive approach and either send Uribe to the left wing or will put Muriel there instead of one of the three. The rest should be the same as the team who played against Senegal.

Once again the Colombian fans will dominate the stands in the stadium, with Carlos Valderrama wearing the same jersey from that match in 1998, and with the elimination of teams like Germany, Argentina and Spain, the fans believe that it's their time to make history.

 James Rodriguez, may be fit for the crucial match (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

James Rodriguez, may be fit for the crucial match (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

England (Yossi Medina)

The talks about football's coming home are rising and rising as long as the World Cup continues. The elimination of Spain made England to be the only former world champions in their side of the bracket and one out of two former finalists in this side, alongside with Sweden.

Since the end of the group stage, many people believe that England is currently in a good position to run all the way to the title. They are ranked on the top 5 and sometimes even in the top 3 according to the betting companies in their odds to win the title. The sounds of 1966 are here, but England knows that being favorite is not always enough, just like two years ago in the Euro against Iceland.

England have good memories from playing against Colombia, as they defeated them in their only World Cup meeting in 1998 group stage. Yet, the English team doesn't like to play against South American teams in World Cup knock out. They won only three times in the past, against Argentina in 1966 and against Paraguay in 1986. Since then, they lost twice to Argentina in 1986 and 1998 and defeated also by Brazil in 2002, but defeated Ecuador in 2006.

With the support in Russia and in the home, England feels that they can do it now. If they could leave the pressure away, England can make another great performance in this tournament that will maybe worth a place at the next stage. If not, it will be another disappointment for coming home too early.

 England fans, sure in their chances to win (Alex Morton/Getty Images)

England fans, sure in their chances to win (Alex Morton/Getty Images)

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World Cup Preview: Sweden v Switzerland

Who? Sweden - Switzerland
Where? Krestovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg
When? July 3, 16:00 (CET local time)

Sweden

Sweden couldn't dream on a better finishing for the group stage. After the dramatic match against Germany, Sweden recovered quickly and thrashed Mexico 3:0. Moreover, the sensational Korean win against Germany meant that they will finish in the first place and thereby will avoid a clash against Brazil.

After their tremendous World Cup in 1994, Sweden qualified to the knockout stage in both of their next World Cup appearances but failed to qualify for the quarter finals. In 2002 they lost by a golden goal to Senegal and four years later they lost to Germany.

One of the main players of the team, Mikael Lustig is expected to make his 70th international cap. As the third most capped in the Swedish squad, many in Sweden will look for his experience in the defense, especially against the lethal attack of Switzerland. Alongside Victor Lindelöf and Andreas Granqvist, Sweden already didn't conceded in two matches during this World Cup.

Until now, Sweden showed great football and it seems that Sweden is keeping their great run from the qualifications. In the new situation that happened in the bracket, Sweden can even dream on reaching their best past achievements. Will it be the case in 2018?

 Mikael Lustig, brings experience for the Swedish defensive line (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Mikael Lustig, brings experience for the Swedish defensive line (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Switzerland

Switzerland coming to the knockout stage with a lot of confidence. The draw against Brazil and the win against Serbia gave them the spot to the round of 16 and even the last match against Costa Rica didn't made them feel disappointed. Now they are ready for their next mission, the match against Sweden.

Switzerland managed to qualify for the knockout stage in three out of their last four World Cup appearances. Yet, they never reached the quarter finals in the tournament when more than 16 teams participated. Their last World Cup quarter final was back in 1954, when they hosted the tournament. They reached the quarter finals twice more, in 1934 and 1938.

After a long time that Switzerland considered as a team with defensive style, the Swiss showed their attacking abilities in this World Cup. First of all they scored five goals in the group stage, one of their best scoring records in World Cup history. Another interesting fact is the number of scorers, five different players scored, making Switzerland as one of the most diverse frontlines at this World Cup.

At the last match, Blerim Džemaili joined Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka as a player who scored in both 2014 and 2018 World Cups. Džemaili, another player with Albanian descent, is one of the players the bringing the new style for Switzerland, the style that makes this team a bit more attractive than usual.

Switzerland will need to keep their playing level they had against Brazil and Serbia. If they will play the same, the Swiss can see themselves as worth to be in the quarter finals. 62 years have passed since their last time, isn't it the right time to return?

 Blerim Dzemaili, part of the Swiss diverse attack (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Blerim Dzemaili, part of the Swiss diverse attack (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

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World Cup Preview: Belgium v Japan

Who? Belgium - Japan
Where? Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
When? July 2, 20:00 (CET local time)

Belgium (Omri Tancman)

The current Belgian generation is considered as one of its finest ever. However, in their last two big tournaments the Belgians haven’t managed to progress as much as they wanted. In Brazil in 2014 and in France in 2016 they didn’t succeed to go beyond the quarter finals. When looking at the first teams Belgium presented and comparing it to their first team in Russia 2018 one of the main changes is the inclusion of Dries Mertens in the starting eleven.

Mertens, Napoli’s sneaky striker made a long way until he became a consensus in the Belgian squad. Unlike some of Belgium’s former wonderkids like Lukaku, Hazard and De Bruyne, Mertens had to scrape his way to the top slowly but surely. For example, due to his small size and physical attributes, Mertens was released from Anderlecht’s youth team when he was 16. However, Mertens did not quit and battled to play professional football. His character and his desire to prove that he can be worthy for any team led him finally to a couple of extraordinary seasons with Napoli. In fact, it seems that the character of Mertens and the fighting ethos of Napoli are a match meant to be.

These mental attributes are something that the Belgian national team can benefit from. One of the popular opinions regarding the Belgian national team is that although they have an abundance of talent, sometimes they lack character and grit. The inclusion of Mertens in the first team, differently than in the last two big tournaments can help Belgium to achieve the expected glory they wish to obtain with this generation so much. A win against Japan can be a great step on this path.

 Dries Mertens, can benefit Belgium with his mental attributes (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Dries Mertens, can benefit Belgium with his mental attributes (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Japan (Yossi Medina)

The continental honour is on Japan. The last Asian team left in the World Cup doesn't want to finish their journey in Russia. The Blue Samurais want to be the third Asian team to play in the quarterfinals, after North Korea in 1966 and South Korea in 2002. In order to do that, they must give their best against Belgium.

Japan can't forget their previous World Cup match against Belgium back in 2002. At their opening match in front of the home crowd, the Japanese managed to finish the game with 2:2 by goals of Takayuki Suzuki and Junichi Inamoto. In that World Cup Japan reached the round of 16 and lost to Turkey in their last match.

Even though Japan made it through the group stage, everyone talked about their controversial finish. Japan lost its last match against Poland and qualified after using the fair play tiebreaker. They were ranked above Senegal only because they got two yellow cards less. Many have doubted if they are really better than Senegal, but now it's all history, as Japan is preparing for their match.

This game can be a milestone day for two player. The first is Shinji Okazaki that may play his 117th international game, which will place him as the third most capped player of Japan. Another milestone can be reached by Keisuke Honda, as his next cap will be his 98th international match and he will be tied as the eighth most capped player alongside with Shunsuke Nakamura.

With all this tradition, history and faith, Japan is ready to bring history not only to their country, but to Asia.  Akira Nishino knows well that it's might be difficult, but Japan proved that they can play well against stronger teams. Will it be the case also tonight?

 Japan, wants to be the third Asian team to reach the quarter finals (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Japan, wants to be the third Asian team to reach the quarter finals (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

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World Cup Preview: Brazil v Mexico

Who? Brazil - Mexico
Where? Samara Arena, Samara
When? July 2, 16:00 (CET local time)

Brazil (Vitor Buratini Mendes)

In the last time that Brazil faced Mexico in a competitive match, the game finished in a tie and with a great hero from the Mexican side, Guillermo Ochoa. Brazil will face him once again and the memories of him are frightening.

Back to the match from 2014 World Cup group stage, Ochoa was the key player. He made incredible saves and was able to handle the Brazilian attack on that day. Back then, Neymar was not able to beat the goalkeeper, who was a true barrier.

We will certainly see a great game today. The Mexican team, despite having lost 0-3 against Sweden in the last match, made two good wins, including against powerful Germany. On the Brazilian side, we watch a team that is growing throughout the tournament.

Brazil has improved in each game. The last match began with a scare: the left-back Marcelo got injured and Filipe Luís substituted him in the first minutes. It caused a lot of fear on the Brazilian side since Marcelo is one of the pillars of the team. However, everything went well: Filipe Luis made an excellent match and he seems as good replacement.

The Brazilian squad is facing a lot of injuries: Danilo was injured earlier, and then Douglas Costa and Marcelo joined. Danilo and Marcelo are expected to be available for this match, although Marcelo is not supposed to be part of the lineup. It's unknown yet when Douglas Costa will return to play. Anyway, Brazil will hope that no more players will get injured, although the substitutes made great work as replacements.

The match will be a battle between two great teams from Latin America. If the injuries would not disturb the show, we will see the better team as the winner. Brazil will hope that Ochoa would not make the same performance as in 2014.

 Neymar versus Mexico in 2014, trying to leave the memories away (Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

Neymar versus Mexico in 2014, trying to leave the memories away (Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

Mexico (Meir Lozowick)

2 years ago, Mexico was in one of its lowest points after being eliminated from the Copa America Centenario by Chile. It just wasn’t just another elimination. Mexico lost 0:7 and the ground was shaking beneath Juan Carlos Osorio legs. The public and the press were furious, and the pressure to sack the Colombian manager was massive. Yes, the players were criticized as well, but the main target was the manager. The easiest thing to do was to release the manager from his duties. However, the chairman of the Mexican football association decided not only to keep Juan Carlos Osorio in charge but also grant him any demand that he might have.

After getting clear and loud support, Juan Carlos Osorio started the rebuild the team. He limited the press access to the training ground, as well as creating a direct channel with the European clubs of the players, were the important keys in the manager's plan. In the last 2 years, Osorio visited the players and talked with their managers in their respective clubs in order to maintain the ongoing plan that will benefit the nation team.

Another important aspect was the hiring of Imanol Ibarrondo, former Spanish footballer. Nowadays, he is a mental coach that helps to develop positive attitude and to create a change of thinking. Ibarrondo has created a set of specific rules for the players, so they can improve their mental strength. He obviously recognises that the first thing that the team need is to be in physical shape and well trained, but he and Osorio insist that strengthening the mental side, will improve the results of the team.

The first glimpse of the mental change was winning against the USA in the first time since 1972 in Columbus, Ohio. Mexico couldn’t win there and breaking this streak helped the players to gain confidence. The latest example can be seen against Germany in the first game. Winning against Germany for the first time in history has proved Ibarrondo's methods.

Mexico qualifying to the round of 16 is almost a guaranteed bet, as well as Mexico being eliminated in this stage. Following a hard defeat against Sweden in the last game of the group stage, Mexico has to play against Brazil. Arguably the best team of the tournament. If you want to bet on this game and ask Ibarrondo, he would recommend you to put your money on Mexico, or as a Spaniard he will describe it: “the best test for your ways, is always to do the hard thing, you either win or learn”. He got the opportunity he asked for, now it’s the time to demonstrate that his way is the correct one.

 Imanol Ibarrondo, the person behind the mental change of Mexico (Alihf Juarez/ mEXSPORT)

Imanol Ibarrondo, the person behind the mental change of Mexico (Alihf Juarez/ mEXSPORT)

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World Cup Preview: Croatia v Denmark

Who? Croatia - Denmark
Where? Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
When? July 1, 20:00 (CET local time)

Croatia (Eden Roitfarb)

The night and the stadium where The Vatreni have captured everyone’s hearts this summer was in Nizhny Novogrod – after beating Argentina 3-0. Today, Croatia return to the town that is located 5 hours east from Moscow, this time to face Denmark in the round of 16. During the group stage, the Nizhny Novogrod stadium had the highest average of goals with 3.75 scored per game – a fact that would open our appetite for some entertaining football on Sunday.

The Croatians come after a 2-1 win over Iceland in a match that did not matter too much for them, besides keeping a fair play spirit and sportsmanship. The fight for second place was very dependent on the score, but Croatia played some of its main players and fought to win. Milan Badelij, who received the chance to start, repaid coach Zlatko Dalic’s faith with a goal and an assist. After finishing first in the group, Croatia find themselves in what is considered the more “comfortable” path to the finals. Many pundits name Spain as the only major powerhouse in this half of the bracket, but the Croatians would fancy their chances to achieve something unimaginable this summer – perhaps even topping their Bronze medal glory from France 1998.

But first, a very tough Danish team are waiting, and they are hungry for success as well. The two teams participate in big tournaments fairly regularly but have only met previously in Euro 1996, in a game that takes back Croatian fans for a trip down memory lane. Davor Šuker scored twice in a 3-0 win, while his second goal was a magical chip over Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel.  22 years later, Peter’s son Kasper is in goal for Denmark – and he will need to stop Croatia from creating another iconic and memorable moment.

 Croatian fans, believe in their chances to repeat 1998 (Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Croatian fans, believe in their chances to repeat 1998 (Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Denmark (Yossi Medina)

Just like Croatia, so does Denmark dream of a first quarter-final appearance since 1998. With their talented squad and strong play that they perform in the group stage, Denmark wants to make the match harder for the Croatians.

During the group stage we saw one of the greatest Danish players nowadays, Christian Eriksen score and bring glory for Denmark. As a Tottenham player, Eriksen can get some inspiration from Luka Modrić, who also played for Spurs until he signed for Real Madrid while he was 26 years old. Eriksen is in the same age today, maybe he can dream on a new adventure on the future.

Denmark almost didn't reach the knockout stage in a major tournament since 1998. Their win against Nigeria at the round of 16 in that World Cup was their last knockout win and since than they lost three times in knockout matches, against Brazil in 1998, against England in 2002 and against Czech Republic in 2004. After 14 years of being eliminated in the group stage or even not qualifying at all, Denmark have the chance to make a great achievemtn.

Åge Hareide and his players are ready to make history. Croatia is the clear favorite, but if Denmark will keep their defensive style and their tough work, they can upset and make the game much more interesting.

 Christian Eriksen, walking on Modric's path (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Christian Eriksen, walking on Modric's path (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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World Cup Preview: Spain v Russia

Who? Spain - Russia
Where? Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
When? July 1, 16:00 (CET local time)

Spain (Yossi Medina)

The future of Spain national team looked a bit uncertain only a few years ago. With a coach that was appointed only two days before the World Cup, nobody thought that Spain will impress in this tournament. Even though they almost didn't face a real opponent in the group stage, Spain maintained its place as one of the favourites and qualified from the top spot.

Now they will play against Russia, who showed already a great performance but failed against a stronger team like Uruguay. Russia has the support as host nation and Spain knows well what it means to play as an away team in the World Cup. In 2002, they faced South Korea and couldn't handle the combination of good opponent, home crowd and of course some controversies with some of the referee's decisions.

In the game against Morocco, we saw an interesting scorer. Two years ago, Iago Aspas wasn't even considered as part from the national squad. He made his debut in a friendly match in November 2016 and since then made just 12 caps. Yet, his scoring record in the team is amazing, as he scored 6 goals. At the age of 30, Aspas became an important part from the Spanish team.

With so much hopes and dreams, Spain will need to defeat Russia if they want to fulfill them. It wouldn't be easy in Luzhniki, but Spain showed more than once that they can do it everywhere.

 Iago Aspas, finally showing his skills in the national team (Getty Images)

Iago Aspas, finally showing his skills in the national team (Getty Images)

Russia (Eden Roitfarb)

On Sunday 17:00 Moscow time, the Russian national team would take the role as David and will face Goliath – also known as La Roja, the Spanish Selección. Speaking of David, the last game Russia played in the knockout stage in a big tournament was the semifinals of Euro 2008 against non-other than Spain – as young midfielder David Silva scored the last goal in an emphatic 3-0 victory. Earlier in that tournament, both teams faced off once more in the group stage and David Villa scored a hattrick on route to a 4-1 win. Ironically, that was still the best side produced by Russian football for a long time, and success has eluded them since.

Back to today, the Russian public feels that advancing to the round of 16 is considered a big achievement as there were almost zero expectations from this squad. 2 from 2 to start the tournament while scoring 8 goals were enough to change the mood of the hosting nation, but Uruguay brought everyone back to earth after easily beating The Golden Eagles 3-0. In this game, Stanislav Cherchesov made a few changes to his starting lineup, but everything went wrong with a Denis Cheryshev own goal and Igor Smolnikov’s dismissal.

Shifting back to optimism, the matchup against Spain will take place in the Luzhniki stadium – where the World Cup opener and 5-0 drubbing of Saudi Arabia took place. 3 other games took place in the venue and only 2 goals were scored. Russia would definitely look to close down the Spanish midfield, which consists old fellow David Silva, and keep a closed and close game while trying to surprise on the counter attack. Then, maybe then, Russia can beat Spain in their home court – just like David overtook Goliath in the biblical myth story.

 Russia, wants to be like David that overtook Goliath (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Russia, wants to be like David that overtook Goliath (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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World Cup Preview: Uruguay v Portugal

Who? Uruguay - Portugal
Where? Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
When? June 30, 20:00 (CET local time)

Uruguay (Gilad Seroussi)

First goal completed, finishing first in the group stage. Not a goal but always nice doing so with 3 wins and without conceding even one goal. Now, with the level of resistance increasing, Uruguay will need to keep the good aspects going and improve the other in order to win one more battle.

The best performance so far was in the last game, when Tabarez gave up on the idea of controlling the tempo of the match and played to the strengths of the squad. 4-3-1-2 formation, with a combative trio in the middle, Bentancur a step forward closer to Cavani and Suarez, and Laxalt supporting the front line from the left band. It appears that el Maestro liked it, as the same players who faced Russia will face Portugal next, apart from the likely return of injured centre-half Josema Gimenez. If Gimenez will be ruled out, Coates will take his place. Both Laxalt and Torreira, in their World Cup starting lineup debut, played really well. The first, running up and down the line being a non-stop headache for the Russians, resulting in a red card early in the game and Cheryshev's own goal. The second, taking control of the middle of the field, gaining possession, running the plays and lighting the imagination of Arsenal's fans hoping to see the deal sealed. The only down side of the new formation was Bentancur who looked a bit uncomfortable in his new position. If needed, the more natural No. 10 of the squad, De Arrascaeta, will be happy to come from the bench to replace Juve's youngster.   

On Saturday evening, afternoon in Uruguay, thousands of Uruguayos in Russia and 3.5 million back home and around the world will stand behind their 11 guerreros. Most of them will not expect lovely football or flashy tricks, nor will they demand a show of superiority. They will want to see the players in celeste living up to the ethos of the Garra Charrua, often misinterpreted as only playing dirty or aggressive, and fighting off the European champions Portugal with all they got until the last whistle. Hopefully, after the whistle la Celeste will go throw forward its next battle in Russia.

 Rodrigo Betancur, will need to get used for his new place alongside Cavani and Suarez (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Rodrigo Betancur, will need to get used for his new place alongside Cavani and Suarez (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Portugal (Yossi Medina)

It was hard, but in the end, Portugal completed the group stage with the spot for the knockout stage. They were one missed shot away from unbelievable lost to Iran. After the final whisle, nobody really remember that, as Fernando Santos and his players will play at the round of 16.

At the last match, a veteran player showed once again how much experience he brings to the team. Ricardo Quaresma is 34 years old but still shows his talent when it is necessary. He doesn't scored too much in the national team, but he knows the right moment to do so. Two years ago, while playing against Croatia in the Euro round of 16, he scored the winning goal at the 117th minute. Against Iran he scored another important goal that worth a lot for Portugal.

Although Portugal played some World Cup games, it will be just their third meeting against South American team. They played twice in the past against Brazil and didn't lost. Uruguay can be a different challenge for Portugal, as they are bringing their fighting spirit.

After missing the knockout stage in 2014 and being eliminated in the round of 16 in 2010, Portugal wants to get back to the top 8 of the tournament. Uruguay wouldn't be an easy opponent, but Portugal is well known as a team that can make this kind of games to possible.

 Ricardo Quaresma, knows the right moment to score (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Ricardo Quaresma, knows the right moment to score (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

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World Cup Preview: France v Argentina

Who? France - Argentina
Where? Kazan Arena, Kazan
When? June 30, 16:00 (CET local time)

France (Omri Tancman)

In many cases, when two teammates at club level play each other in the World Cup there is a little bit of magic in the air. It is always interesting to watch how personal contacts and friendships transform very easily to a rivalry once money is transferred with national pride. This will be the case for Samuel Umtiti and Lionel Messi

Between both players there is a lot of mutual respect. For example, when rumors in March linked Umtiti with leaving Barcelona, one of the most vocal players to keep Umtiti in the club was Messi. Umtiti as well shows a lot of appreciation for Messi. Umtiti was asked in a press conference towards the game between France and Argentina about his relationship with Messi. According to Umtiti, it is almost impossible to stop Messi due to his abnormal qualities and his desire to win every game. Umtiti, the one who’s supposed to stop Messi during Barcelona trainings, said that Messi’s technical abilities and different eye to the game, as he witnesses every day, is what makes Messi so difficult to stop for defenders but at the same time so admired and appreciated by them.

Even though Umtiti maintains a close relationship with Messi, he admits that he did not contact Messi at all and that he prefers to concentrate on his own performance during the game. Both players might probably exchange some impressions and words after the highly expected clash will end. In these moments, it maybe will be nice for them to remember that after all its just football. However, it seems that Umtiti’s words and maybe also both players’ behavior after the game can be a good reminder that there are moments in which it is much more than just a game.

 Samuel Umtiti, ready to face his teammate (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Samuel Umtiti, ready to face his teammate (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Argentina (Yossi Medina)

Argentina's pressure is almost over. After facing the possibility of elimination in the group stage, Argentina managed to complete a wonderful game against Nigeria and reach the round of 16. Sampaoli and his players now left over this pressure and now there is only one tiny expectation that the fans still want their team to achieve – winning the World Cup.

It wouldn't be easy, thanks for both the team's performance until now and the draw. Although Argentina eventually defeated Nigeria, we need to remember that the team showed weak performance in their first two matches. Moreover, Nigeria missed few chances to make the thing a bit complicated for Argentina and no one can promise that France will not use it in order to get an advantage.

If Argentina wants to reach the final, they have to walk through a tough journey. Uruguay or Portugal will wait in the quarter finals, Brazil might be their opponents in the semi finals. These rivals are much stronger than Argentina's opponents in the group stage, so they just can't play in the same level as in the previous stage.

Some optimists say that playing against France can lead to the final, as happened in the history. The teams faced each other twice in the past World Cup, in 1930 group stage and in 1978 group stage. In both of the occasions, Argentina won as part from a journey to the World Cup final.

The fans can be found already everywhere in Kazan. Just like it was in St. Petersburg few days ago, they will bring the Latin vibes to the stadium and will make it to feel like a match in Buenos Aires. With such a support, everybody is ready for their show.

 Argentina fans, will turn Kazan into Buenos Aires (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Argentina fans, will turn Kazan into Buenos Aires (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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The Arab Collapse

"Even if we take Egypt's defence, Morocco's midfield, Tunisia’s front line and Saudi money, I'm not sure that this team can go through one of the groups in this World Cup," says Mohamed Nagy Salami, an Egyptian journalist, at Domodedovo Airport - the central station of this World Cup.

A record number of four Arab teams have qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, all were eliminated after two games.

Many expected that at least one of the Arab teams will become the exciting team of the tournament, and they were disappointed when these teams crashed against better European and South American rivals.

What are the main causes of failure? Does it means something about Arab football as a whole? And does it matter at all?

 Egypt and Saudi Arabia fans, tryin to understand the failure (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Egypt and Saudi Arabia fans, tryin to understand the failure (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Approach, conduct and planning

“Why didn’t Salah play if he was fit, and how did it make the other players feel?”, I asked. "I'm still not speculating about who's supposed to play and when, and certainly not about feelings. The whole story will ask the staff”, Mahmoud Hassan Trezeguet told me after Egypt's loss to Uruguay in Ekaterinburg. "You're asking the wrong person."

A standard answer from a football player to a journalist, but it holds quite a bit. In order to succeed in the World Cup, you also need to know how to manage, how to plan, what standards should be followed in preparing for and during this kind tournament.

The Pharaohs, which has fulfilled the dream of 105 million Egyptians and returned to the World Cup after 28 years, gave an example of how you don't prepare for such a tournament. It began in May with a saga of the aircraft and the use of the image of Mohammed Salah the by the FA without the player’s approval. It created problems with the player's sponsors and between him and the team leaders; Also locating the training base in Grozny, Chechnya made the players to take long flights for every match. A number of sources claim that Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruler of Chechnya, demanded that Egypt and Salah will be his special guests, what left the FA without an option to reject it.

Another hot issue was the treatment of Salah's injury and his problematic return to the lineup. The announcement that he was fit when it was clear that he was not, with placing him on the bench but preventing his participation in the game, and the choose to get back to the lineup in the most important game in the history of Egypt was neither wise nor professional.

Into this hustle came the presence of families and close associates to the the camp. Sources in the technical staff testified that "there were moments when it would not have been a team preparing for the World Cup, but for a festival, an entertainment."

Egypt, which was apparently one of the favorites among the Arab teams to reach the knockout stage, reached its third tournament in history as a complete mess. Salah’s injury, the fact that Uruguay is a much more strong and quality team, Russia as the hosts, and the odds were gone.

The match against Saudi Arabia was just the [rotten] cherry on the top.

20,000 Egyptians returned home with a disappointed feeling. "Salah was fit for a 60% chance to play, Ahmed Fathy with an own goal, it simply was not it," says Salma, an Egyptian fan who went to the match in St. Petersburg. “One thing is sure - I'll never underestimate the host team ever again. The Russian crowd had such a powerful impact that night. It was too much for us”.

Grade: 2.5/10

 Mohamed Salah, unclear situation for him and his team (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Mohamed Salah, unclear situation for him and his team (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Money Should be Invested Wisely

Saudi Arabia had no qualifying expectations. Although the Saudi league considered as the Premier League of the Arab world, with the highest salaries in Western Asia and the Middle East, perhaps the highest among the Arab countries, it was clear that they will not go through Group A.
The defeat in the opening match had a devastating impact for the continuation of the tournament. In a way, it made a throwback to 2002, when they lost 8-0 against Germany. The criticism was so imminent that even after a game against Uruguay, where they played not bad at all, nobody counted them as a legitimate competitor.

The lesson for Turki Al-Sheikh and the Saudis is that massive investment in the local league and in the big clubs does not guarantee success on the national team level. In addition, the failed experiment with players loaned to Spanish teams proved that it did not have any positive effect on the team. Salem Al-Dawsri improved, but it’s not enough. In contrast, the stars who had to get in good shape were rusty and did not keep pace with the Russians and the Uruguayans. Though, after the victory against Egypt, in Saudi Arabia there are those who do not see this tournament as a failure.

"You have to tell the truth. We are a weak national team. You have to think positive. On other days, Pizzi was already sent home," says Abdel Aziz Azam, who is in Moscow and followed Saudi Arabia's since first game in the tournament. "I am glad that Turki issued a statement of support in the coach and the players and decided to let him continue. That means a lot to us, and I hope it will continue in the future”.

Grade: 3.5/10

 Salem Al-Dawsari, the only one that got better in Spain (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Salem Al-Dawsari, the only one that got better in Spain (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Know Your Place
The Moroccan professional experience, together with Egypt, constituted for many the Arab hope for surprise in the World Cup. An impressive team, mostly European based, talented players who are playing in European big teams and an excellent coach, who is both charismatic and handsome. But at the World Cup, certainly in a group with the European champions, one of the best teams in the world and one of the best teams in Asia, that's not enough.

Renard is an excellent coach, the only one to win consecutive Africa Cup of Nations twice with two different teams, is considered the best coach on the black continent. At the same time, he is inexperienced in the World Cup, and it was obvious. Morocco's offensive line was made up of too many players and too few true strikers.

Morocco played well in all of its of its matches, but could not ‘kill’ their opponent.

Mehdi Benatia was stressed, Hakim Ziyech, player of the year in the Netherlands, wasn’t convincing, and in general the Moroccans seemed to pay the price of the experience in such tournaments. "Our free kicks is what killed us. You just can not get to a tournament like that, without a single organized play, without a certain approach to set pieces on both sides of the pitch“, says Benjamin Hajj of Maghrib Foot, A Moroccan football blogger who followed the team in all the qualifications matches, and also here in Russia, in matches and trainings. "I think both games had 15 free kicks that we managed to do nothing with it. Our opponents had half of this amount and scored twice, once in the 5th minute, and again in the 95th minute. Football," he concluded sourly. Although against Spain, Morocco has prevailed a serious amount of its talent, what was impressive by all counts, but too little too late as well.

Grade: 4/10

 Herve Renard, great in Africa, lack of World Cup experience (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Herve Renard, great in Africa, lack of World Cup experience (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Solid but Helpless

Tunisia had no pressure on its back before the tournament.

They provided a very close game against England until Harry Kane scored in 91st. Against Belgium they dropped defence completely and were part of one of the most enjoyable to watch games in tournament.

Yet, the Tunisians, who for a few moments seemed like the best MENA representative in the tournament, paid for the lack of authority of the association.

About a month and a half before the tournament, the Carthage Eagles were prominently featured in the most impressive front line of Arabism, with three players who shared almost 60 goals in the previous season. Two of them, Yousef Msakni and Taha Khneissi, won their league championships in Qatar and Tunisia, several rounds to finish the season. Instead of asking the players to watch out for themselves and tell the clubs to deduct their game minutes or to direct them to a specific training program, the association did nothing.

The two players were injured in the garbage time of the season, suffering long-term injuries that effectively ruined Tunisia’s small chance of sensation at the difficult group to which they were drawn. "No one really thought we'd get anything with such a lottery, so they just gave the players a plan of preparation, that kept properly, which is important to do in the year of the World Cup," said Djamal Farouk Abdu, a Tunisian football journalist. “At least we won Panama. First World Cup victory in 40 years - since that one against Mexico in 1978. That’s fun!”

Grade: 6/10

 Tunisia, looking for the bright side with their first World Cup win since 1978 (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Tunisia, looking for the bright side with their first World Cup win since 1978 (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Is That What Really Matters?

When you look at how the Arab teams lost in the World Cup, it is impossible not to understand the frustration. A resounding defeat in the opening game, Egypt to Uruguay in the 89th minute, Morocco to Iran in the 95th minute, Tunisia to England in the 91st minute.

Goals in the last few minutes are a result of concentration, of fitness, and often, of luck.

Who believed that Aziz Bouhadouz, who only entered 18 minutes earlier as a striker, would score such a glorious own goal that would put Iran, the Persian representative of the Middle East, that only one shot that went wide prevented them from qualifying from the first spot in Group B one of the hardest in the competition. Who believed that Mohammed Salah would suffer an injury in the Champions League final, and that 90 minutes of Morocco against Portugal will be great but will not produce one shot on goal.

In this campaign, the Arab teams lacked the concentration, as well as the luck. When we come to examine the achievements of the Arab national teams in the World Cup, we must also put things in proportion.

 Morocco after the match against Spain, lack of concentration and luck (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Morocco after the match against Spain, lack of concentration and luck (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

A known Masri fan in Moscow offers a more optimistic outlook. "Right. It's embarrassing and annoying on the one hand, because the whole world looks at you, but when you think about it in depth it's not so bad. What is important here is that after many years of suffering, you look at the fragile Egypt, the post-revolution Tunisia, the changing Saudi Arabia, and Morocco with all the stigmas that Europeans has over the immigrants, as legitimate countries participating in this world festival called the World Cup. This is the magic of the World Cup, and the truth is that for the younger generation it is very important to get to the tournament. The fact that they will talk about us as members of this almost closed club is good. Seven years ago, our whole area was in a state of chaos and suffering. I believe we are in the process, and that's just another step in the way”.

The very fact that the Arab teams competitive presence in the tournament, is their real achievement in this World Cup. After all, in terms of football infrastructure, football thinking, facilities and resources, all these teams are way behind Europe and South America. Even if not all the parameters, then certainly in some.

The achievement lies in the hope that they gave to the fans, who sat and gathered in Tunis, Cairo, Casablanca, expecting a miracle, exactly like Eduardo Galeano wrote in his book.

The disappointment is clear, and it is doubtful when we will see another World Cup like this, where most of the West African giants failed to qualify, and made room for three North African teams. Think about it. For the Egyptian kid, who has seen Egypt in the World Cup, and perhaps now understands how hard it is to work to improve and be on a world-class level, and that motivates him. It is important to remember that these teams represent hope in places where, on a regular basis, during the year, or once every four years, there are not too many sources of inspiration, joy or pride.

So maybe it's not so surprising that they did not go through, and that’s not even the main thing here. "I'm not disappointed with our show, I'm very happy with our performance and I'm very proud. I am very proud of the players, very proud of the team and I am very proud of this country”. Thus, when he strangled the tears, Renard, the French coach of Morocco, summed it up.

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