ST. PETERSBURG — From a World Cup bracket that looks like a bright, imaginative, big-hearted child might have drawn it, maybe even in crayon, and especially if that child were Russian, one of the following four teams will appear a week from Sunday in a rare and motley final: Croatia, Russia, Sweden or Eng— . . .
That’s Eng— . . .
Uh, Eng— . . .
This reality stands cemented already even ahead of the quarterfinals that begin Friday, with only two previous final berths sprinkled among that whole foursome up there. That will mark a departure from the penchant of the World Cup final to spotlight titans, with Spain in 2010 the only finalist since 1966 without multiple finals all-time, and with nobody deeming Spain an upstart. Twenty-nine of the 40 berths have gone to Germany (eight), Brazil (seven), Italy (six), Argentina (five) or the Netherlands (three).
Somehow, only one of those five stands among the final eight, with that one (Brazil) on the caviar side of the bracket alongside Belgium’s golden generation, France’s soaring talent and Uruguay’s all-pitch competence. That leaves ample room already to note things such as that, when two teams walk out for the final in Moscow, Croatia could forge an astounding achievement for a country only 27 years old and with 4.2 million souls, or England . . .
In one of those statistics that seems impossible until its plausibility rises with careful viewing, England, the home to the world’s most popular sports league, which is also a soccer league, has reached only one World Cup semifinal in the 52 years since 1966, the year it won the World Cup at Wembley Stadium as a host.
If it can beat Sweden on Saturday in a quarterfinal, this eccentric World Cup will bring it a first semifinal since 1990, which was so yawningly long ago that, at the time, the mayor of Turin, the late Maria Magnani Noya, expressed understandable concern about having English fans in her city. She feared not only their then-established knack for violence and other matters of disgust, but that they might incur retributive attack from fans of the Turin-based club Juventus, five years after Liverpool fans trampled and killed 39 fans, including 32 Italians, in the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels, prompting a five-year ban of English clubs from European competition.
That seems eternally ago because England long since took both its proclivity and reputation for disorder and snuffed out both — systematically, decisively and impressively. By now, anyone still mentioning England in this vein deserves to be asked how long their coma lasted. By now, in such a different time, the foremost risk from England fans might come from having one faint in your direction after England won against Colombia in the endeavor which had haunted it for a generation: penalties.
“I’m so proud of the way we played,” Manager Gareth Southgate said in a FIFA TV interview afterward, “because coming into a knockout game, everybody knows our history in the last 10 years with knockout games, so to play with the authority that we did and the composure that we did for the game was really top, I thought. And then we had to show incredible resilience to come back from such a hammer blow right on the final whistle, really.”
He referred to Colombia’s smashing equalizer in the 93rd minute, and his only possible slip-up came with “10 years,” which might have been “25 years” for broader accuracy.
England has played only one of the 20 previous World Cup finals, its 4-2 win over West Germany in 1966. Sweden has played one also, in 1958, at home, against Brazil and a 17-year-old Pele, who scored twice that day and who by now is 77 and tweeting congratulations to the French wunderkind Kylian Mbappe for his two knockout-game goals against Argentina. Croatia and Russia have played none, yet the triumvirate of England, Sweden and Croatia did thrive in a 1990s corridor.
England had 1990, when it surpassed by 3-2 the tournament darling, Cameroon, in a quarterfinal in Naples behind penalty kicks in the 83rd and 105th minutes from Gary Lineker, by now known to a fresh generation as a television presenter with a natural omnipresence. “Born on Winston Churchill’s birthday, Gary Winston Lineker came to England’s rescue against a force that left them trembling,” wrote William Gildea in The Washington Post. England lost its semifinal to West Germany in Turin on penalties before well-behaved fanatics.
Sweden, in a matter that became a poster you could buy in Stockholm later that summer (and presumably beyond), finished third in 1994 in the United States, playing knockout matches in the Cotton Bowl (a 3-1 win over Saudi Arabia), at Stanford Stadium (a 2-2 draw with Romania, and a win on penalties) and at the Rose Bowl (a 1-0 loss to Brazil on Romario’s 80th-minute goal). “I can’t explain it in English,” Sweden’s Kennet Andersson said after the quarterfinal. “I don’t think I can explain it in Swedish, either.”
And Croatia, then only seven years old as a country, placed third in France in 1998, coursing through Romania and Germany before losing a semifinal to eventual winner France. As a signal of the geopolitics of the era, Croatia’s Robert Prosinecki became the only player to score in World Cups for two countries, having scored also for the vaster Yugoslavia, pre-breakup, in 1990. “What we have demonstrated,” manager Miroslav Blazevic said, “is that our very, very small — perhaps unknown — country is able to show with great elegance what it is capable of. Hopefully more people will learn about our country because of this team.”
Certainly more people have learned how to go find its players, 14 of whom play in either Spain, England, Italy, Germany or France, and two of whom, including captain and best player Luka Modric, just celebrated a third straight European Champions League title with Real Madrid.
All 23, of course, prepare to play Russia, with its world ranking of No. 70 stashed beneath Cape Verde, Finland, Albania, Jamaica and Burkina Faso, to name a smattering. Russia secured a spot here very long before anyone else, on Dec. 2, 2010, when 22 members of FIFA gave Russia nine votes on the first round and 13 on the second so that it outdistanced a Spain-Portugal bid, a Netherlands-Belgium bid and an England bid.
Even though it emerged from by far the easiest group and got thrashed in there by Uruguay, and even though it has benefited both from Mohamed Salah’s injury and Spain’s odd fecklessness, further passage wouldn’t feel so unprecedented. Location matters. South Korea made an unexpected run to the semifinals as a co-host in 2002, and that noted minnow the United States reached its first round of 16 in 60 years in 1994. This has been a World Cup of “Ross-i-ya” chants even during matches not involving Russia, and often followed by brief jeers from jarred, miffed fans of those actually playing.
“There are many good teams, and a lot is at stake,” Sweden’s Emil Forsberg said. “It can be nerves” which help explain the unexpected. “It can be anything.” It can dredge tears, such as those reported by Forsberg and his manager, Janne Andersson, with more tears clearly ahead.