Cope: Imagining the semifinal possibilities at the World Cup (column)
July 9, 2018
Imagine. Imagine you are Gareth Southgate and you have just missed a penalty kick in the semifinal of the 1996 European Championships that England is hosting. You've just lost to Germany and your career is at a low point. Thirty years previously, in 1966, England had hosted and won the World Cup, beating Germany in the final, no less. Since then, England has only made it back to a semifinal of a World Cup once and that was in 1990, where they lost on penalties to, you guessed it, Germany.
Now imagine again that you are Gareth Southgate having missed that penalty and somebody told you that you will be the manager of England one day, the team will be back in a semifinal and that Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Spain would all be eliminated before you had to play them.
F. Scott Fitzgerald may or may not have said, "I once thought that there were no second acts," but this would clearly count as one heck of a second act. In fact, the song that swept the country in that summer of 1996, "Three Lions," a reference to the iconic badge on the England shirt, with its chorus that proclaimed, "Football's coming home," has enjoyed its own revival this summer. If you know any English fans, and I know a few, then they will no doubt have quietly whispered to you this summer, "It's coming home." What started out as sort of a joke and a pipe dream, has become more and more of a possibility. An actual possibility has emerged that England could win the World Cup.
Before we get too carried away, (before?) it's important to recognize the cold reality that England is probably the fourth best of the four teams remaining, on paper anyway. England has reached this point without playing a team of genuine pedigree. Their subs lost to Belgium's subs in a meaningless game after both teams had already qualified for the next round. Colombia, in the round of 16, was lacking their best player, Bayern Munich's James Rodriguez, the leading scorer at the 2014 World Cup. Sweden in the quarterfinal were a solid, if not very dynamic team, whose best player, Emil Forsberg, plays for RB Leipzig, hardly amongst the glamour clubs of Europe.
Croatia, on the other hand, has players of genuine quality. Luka Modric has won the Champion's League three times with Real Madrid and is, arguably, the finest midfielder alive today. He is also familiar with the English game, having spent time at Tottenham Hotspur. Ivan Rakatic has been anchoring Barcelona's midfield for several years, Mario Mandzukic just won another Italian League title with Juventus and Dejan Lovren just reached the Champion's League final with Liverpool, no doubt making him familiar with his teammate Jordan Henderson and the rest of the England team.
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All of these Croatian players, however, are on the wrong side of their 29th birthday and have played a total of four overtime periods and two penalty shootouts in the knockout rounds. Meanwhile England famously overcame the penalty curse in the first round and played a relatively straightforward 2-0 quarterfinal game against Sweden.
I give the stamina advantage to England and its young team, led by 24-year-old captain Harry Kane, 24-year-old goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, 25-year-old defender and goal scorer Harry Maguire. In fact, Southgate's young English team has managed to turn set pieces into a strength, scoring eight of 11 of their goals from corners and, ironically, penalties.
On the other side of the draw is the glamour game for neutral fans. Belgium, fresh off a win over the vaunted Brazilians, sails into this semifinal with the wind at their backs. Surviving a scare in the first knockout round against Japan has unified them. Down 2-0 versus Japan, they somehow survived against an idealist Japanese team, which could have advanced if they'd been more pragmatic and not kept trying to attack and leave themselves wide open at the back. Against Brazil, Belgium managed to shut down Neymar and company, with a heroic performance from Thibaut Courtois in goal and Vincent Kompany in the back. With the movement and running of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne up front, this team has the goods to win two more games.
France comes into their semifinal against Belgium having knocked out Lionel Messi's Argentina and having put two goals past a very tough Uruguayan defense. England's Harry Kane may be the leading goalscorer, but it is the French teenager Kylian Mbappe who has excited neutral fans the most. In fact, at one of our high school drop-in sessions the other day, the nickname, "Mbappe" had already been bestowed on one of our players by his friends. It is scary to think that the player in question is only three years younger than his namesake.
The Tuesday, July 10, France vs. Belgium game will feature players of the highest quality and should be a feast for neutrals. Wednesday's game will be that second act for England manager Gareth Southgate. Can he overcome that 1996 semifinal defeat to reach his first final and finally bring football back home? Just imagine.