MOSCOW — When World Cup players and coaches are asked to explain an almost inexplicable situation or outcome, the common response comes with a shrug and, in various languages, an unsatisfying response: “That’s football.”
What has unfolded here over three weeks can be neither explained in full nor casually dismissed as something that has happened for reasons only known to the soccer gods.
That’s football? More like, that’s not normal.
There are, though, some ways to make sense of it all.
First, the facts: Germany, Brazil, Spain, Argentina and Portugal are gone. That’s the reigning champion, the all-time trophy holder, a global titan, a five-time finalist and the defending European winner — the last two of which employ the sport’s two most electrifying players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Anyone claiming to have predicted the specific semifinalists before the competition began — France, Belgium, England and Croatia — is lying. Separately, each carried plausible hope of making it to the final week, but the thought of all four advancing was far-fetched.
The last time the top four did not include at least one from the power group of Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy was, well, never. Since 1970, two or more from that quartet had appeared in the semifinals in every tournament except 1998 and 2010.
This year, France is the most decorated of late, having won the 1998 title at home and finishing second eight years later. Belgium last made it this far in 1986, England in 1990 and Croatia in 1998. All three lost right away.
“The big teams are home,” Croatia Coach Zlatko Dalic said. “The teams who are hard-working, compact, united and well organized, they are here in Russia. This is the character of the four teams remaining in the tournament.”
It has taken more than those intangibles, however, to reach the semifinals of soccer’s premier global event; it has taken talent. With the best players from smaller countries plying their trade in major European leagues, it becomes easier to understand some, if not all, of the reasons for this summer’s shake-up.
The size of Belgium and Croatia — in land mass and population — belies the wealth of sublime skill churned out by youth academies and national team programs.
Although the countries combine to house just 15.5 million citizens — about the same as Istanbul’s metro area — all but three of their 46 World Cup players have outgrown the respective domestic leagues and moved on to some of the world’s mightiest clubs.
Croatia is represented on three La Liga forces (Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid), plus Liverpool, Juventus, Eintracht Frankfurt, Inter Milan and AC Milan. Midfield wizard Luka Modric has won three consecutive UEFA Champions League titles with Real Madrid, and his central partner, Ivan Rakitic, is a four-year regular at nemesis Barcelona.
Most of Belgium’s starting lineup, including Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, stars in the elite Premier League. England’s entire 23-man squad is based on the domestic front. France’s affiliations are all Europe’s top five leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France).
Russia was an anomaly, a surprise quarterfinalist with two players competing outside its mid-level home circuit. Spirit, tactics and home support pushed it through.
Although Senegal failed to advance from group play, the Lions of Teranga played entertaining soccer and served as another example of a small country that has benefited from players testing themselves abroad year-round: seven in France, six in England and three in Italy. Uruguay’s small population featured 14 World Cup players from European clubs.
The failed favorites also boasted high-powered rosters, but with the rise of next-tier contenders, the margin of error became smaller and chemistry, desire and coaching came into play.
Spain was never right after the firing of coach Julen Lopetegui two days before the tournament. Argentina’s Jorge Sampaoli reportedly faced a mutiny. And despite an extraordinary finish against Sweden, Germany’s Joachim Loew failed to rally his team in the group finale against South Korea.
The Brazilians were on a trajectory for a sixth championship until the quarterfinals, when Belgium made them uncomfortable for the first time and dominated the first half.
Meanwhile, England and France, big names but classic underachievers, took dissimilar paths. Without the star power of years past, England is a model of teamwork and belief. Blessed with immense talent, France doesn’t seem to have broken much of a sweat in cruising to the semifinals.
What has punctuated perhaps the greatest World Cup ever — besides the torrent of late goals and riveting affairs — has been the refreshing look of the semifinals. No one could have predicted this, but almost everyone is enjoying it.
Now that’s football.
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