The World Cup is nearing its climax. There’s no Brazil, no Germany, no Cristiano Ronaldo, no Lionel Messi and now, no Belgium. But there’s still France. Coach Didier Deschamps’ young team defeated Belgium yesterday and will face the winner of today’s semifinal between England and Croatia in Sunday’s final in Moscow. That will be the culmination of a monthlong soccerfest that has excited fans with the closeness of its games and last-minute dramas -- much to the delight then pain of the host nation Russia. Despite international political tensions, Russia’s enjoying something of a public relations triumph as host cities warmly embraced the hundreds of thousands of foreign fans who’ve thronged the streets in colorful celebrations.
1. What’s left?
Three more games. Samuel Umtiti’s headed goal earned France a 1-0 victory in St. Petersburg last night and a place in its third World Cup final in 20 years. The loser of tonight’s semifinal in Moscow (9pm local time kickoff) will meet Belgium in the third-place playoff on Saturday (5pm local time). The following day, the 64th and final game of the tournament will kick off in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium at 6pm local time.
2. What’s unusual about the lineups?
It’s the first time since the inaugural event in 1930 that the top four didn’t include at least one of Germany, Brazil or Italy. After Belgium’s exit, Croatia is the only remaining team never to have won the tournament, or to have appeared in the final. England, which secured its only title in 1966, is set to take part in its third World Cup semifinal and first since 1990, a penalty shootout loss to West Germany. Croatia, the third-place playoff winner in 1998, will appear in its second semifinal. It lost to France 20 years ago.
3. Who will the French face?
Bookmakers give England the edge, but there’s little between the semifinalists. The captains are lynchpins: England’s Harry Kane and Croatia’s Luka Modric have more man-of-the-match awards (three each) than anyone else at Russia 2018. Modric, Croatia’s top-scorer with two goals, forms the heart of an impressive midfield alongside Ivan Rakitic. Kane’s six goals rank him as the World Cup’s leading scorer, while in Jordan Pickford, England has uncovered a keeper capable of match-saving heroics. Croatia reached the last four by virtue of penalty shootout wins over Denmark and Russia. England’s more comfortable quarterfinal (2-0 against Sweden) may count in its favor, particularly if there’s extra time. Discipline may come into it: Croatia has a tournament-high 12 yellow cards to England’s five. In seven head-to-head meetings, England has lost twice, drawn once and won four, including (most recently) 5-1 and 4-1 victories in qualifying games for the 2010 World Cup.
4. Can anyone stop France?
Les Bleus look formidable. As well as having pace and strength in attack, they’re adept at denying teams space and scoring chances. That prowess was again in evidence when they shut out Belgium, the World Cup’s highest-scoring team, to end its 24-game unbeaten run. Four teams have now failed to breach France’s defense, a tournament high. Deschamps, France’s captain in 1998, is seeking to join Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer and Brazil’s Mario Zagallo as the only winners of soccer’s top prize both as a player and coach.
5. Who’s going to win the golden boot?
Kane’s six goals makes him a clear favorite after Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku failed to add to his four goals yesterday. Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe head France’s scoring list but each needs a hat-trick in the final to reach six goals. Portugal’s Ronaldo and Russia’s Denis Cheryshev also scored four goals to share second place with Lukaku.
6. What’s been different at this World Cup?
Referees making large rectangular shapes with their fingers then reviewing controversial moments of play on a pitch-side TV screen. FIFA, soccer’s governing body, introduced “video assistant referees,” or VAR, to help adjudicate goals, penalty decisions and more. Four reviewers monitor the action from a room in Moscow, and they’ve been busy. The reception for VAR has been largely (if not totally) positive, with most criticism arising not from the actual system but from the referees’ flawed interpretations or failure to deploy VAR. Concern it would slow games down has proven largely unfounded.
7. Anything else different?
The lack of 0-0s -- just one so far (Denmark vs France). Thanks in good measure to VAR, Russia 2018 has been high on penalties awarded (a record 28) and low on red cards (four) and offsides. The 11 own-goals smashed the record of six at France 1998. Senegal became the first team ever to be eliminated by virtue of having a worse “fair play” record, losing out to Japan because it had collected more yellow cards. There was also the first World Cup airing of the Viking clap of Iceland supporters during their tournament debut, while Panamanian fans wildly celebrated their team’s first ever World Cup goal in a 6-1 thrashing by England as if they’d won the game. Another novelty: England finally won a World Cup penalty shootout at the fourth attempt.
8. What would Gareth Southgate do?
England’s shootout win over Colombia in the second round lifted a weight from the shoulders of long-suffering fans, not to mention the team’s waistcoast-wearing coach, Gareth Southgate. He missed his kick in the 1996 European Championship semifinal defeat to Germany and made a point of focusing his players on the art of the shootout in the tournament buildup. Southgate’s levelheadedness and good-guy persona -- he consoled Colombia players after their shootout loss -- has sparked a Twitter trend of #GarethSouthgateWould phrases, such as “give you his portable charger whilst he’s on 1 percent.”
9. How have the bank boffins and psychic animals fared?
Some forecasters are learning the hard way that the beautiful game can’t simply be reduced to statistics and data modeling. Commerzbank AG and UBS Group AG both picked Germany, while Goldman Sachs Group Inc. went for Brazil. EA Sports, the official video-game company that correctly predicted the last two winners by simulating the entire tournaments, is still in the running: It forecast France would win. After the success of Paul the octopus in predicting results in 2010, by pointing a tentacle at one of two food boxes bearing the national flag of each team, Russia promoted a deaf cat called Achilles as its tournament oracle. However, the feline’s psychic powers were overshadowed by Rabio, an octopus that correctly called Japan’s first three results. Alas, Rabio was killed and sold as seafood before the team’s next game: a 3-2 loss to Belgium after Japan led 2-0. Meantime, Russia’s central bank noted the similarity between an image on its special World Cup banknote and the Russian keeper’s decisive shootout save against Spain. “Forecasting has always been our strong point,” the Bank of Russia said.
10. Who’s missing?
While President Emmanuel Macron was in the stadium for France’s semifinal, there’ll be no English officials on the sidelines tonight after U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May ruled out the attendance of British politicians and royals. Her decision followed the poisoning on British soil of a Russian former spy and his daughter and, according to Bloomberg’s Thomas Penny, is looking like a political own goal. On the other hand, the death of a British citizen from the same poison this week would have made May’s attendance controversial. One welcome group of absentees from the tournament: Russia’s soccer hooligans, known as “ultras.”
11. What’s controversial about Russia hosting?
The 2010 vote by FIFA’s executive committee awarding Russia this year’s tournament is still under criminal investigation by French, Swiss and U.S. prosecutors, with lingering accusations that the vote was rigged. There are still-fresh memories of the doping scandal that unfolded after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and resulted in the Russian team being banned from this year’s winter games. (Vitaly Mutko, the former sports minister who was banned for life from the Olympics, was on the FIFA committee that selected Russia and ran the organizing committee until resigning in December.) Because of Russia’s 2013 law banning public expressions of support for homosexuality, LGBT soccer fans have been warned not to hold hands or otherwise display their affections.
12. What’s in it for Russia?
Putin’s government spent 683 billion rubles ($11 billion) on preparations, much of it on new stadiums and transport infrastructure. Beyond that, the economic impact will be “very limited” because most of the 12 stadiums are in areas -- like Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains -- that are unlikely to draw tourists over time, Moody’s Investors Service said before the tournament. Putin used the Sochi Olympics to bolster his public image, but his approval ratings are so high that the World Cup is unlikely to affect his standing at home. While staging a successful tournament probably won’t influence his critics overseas, many visiting fans have remarked that Russia’s been much nicer and more welcoming than they expected.
• See the goals and more on FIFA’s World Cup YouTube page.
• How the British protest fizzled.
• The maverick World Cup city.
• A QuickTake on World Cup corruption.
• Author-journalist Ken Bensinger asks: Did Russia steal the World Cup?
--With assistance from Stephanie Baker and Jake Rudnitsky.
To contact the reporters on this story: Grant Clark in Singapore at firstname.lastname@example.org;Tony Halpin in Moscow at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Leah Harrison Singer at firstname.lastname@example.org, Laurence Arnold, Tony Halpin
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