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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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