And then there were four
With their victories over Sweden and hosts Russia, England and Croatia booked their places in the final four of the 2018 FIFA World Cup on Saturday night (Australian time), joining France and Belgium in the penultimate fixtures of the tournament.
The triumph of France and Belgium over Uruguay and Brazil respectively means that this will be the first Copa Mundial to feature an all European semi-final line-up since 2006; when Italy and Germany and France and Portugal met in the final four.
This European dominance of the World Cup in recent times is not a new concept, with the 2018 tournament just adding to the ongoing narrative that, whilst football is growing around the world, it’s power is still centered in Europe.
In total, Europe has supplied 31 of the 40 participants since the semi-final was reintroduced to the World Cup format at the 1982 World Cup in Spain; South America supplying eight and Asia one.
It also means that Russia 2018 will crown the fourth straight winner from Europe; Germany, Spain, and Italy having won the three previous tournaments.
A victory by either France or England would also mean that the World Cup trophy would once again be lifted by a nation that is a part of the “Big Five” of club football leagues; whose capital, investment and worldwide reach dwarf those of other competitions around the globe.
This will not be the first visit of France, Belgium, England and Croatia to the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup, but what happened the last time these nations reached this stage?
France’s last visit to the semi-finals occurred in the aforementioned 2006 World Cup, Raymond Domenech’s side defeating Luis Figo and his Portuguese teammates 1-0 in Munich.
Draws against Switzerland and South Korea in that tournament’s group stages meant that – despite a win over Togo on matchday three – France finished second behind the Swiss in Group G.
France would then go on to defeat Spain – who was still four years away from becoming the unstoppable juggernaut that rolled to the 2010 World Cup – 3-1 in the Round of 16 at the HDI-Arena.
A Thierry Henry goal would then propel Les Blues past defending champions Brazil in the quarter-final; setting up a semi-final date with the Portuguese.
France produced a commanding performance in that semi-final to earn the victory, scoring when Zinedine Zidane converted a 33rd-minute penalty won when Henry was brought down in the area by Ricardo Carvalho.
Competing in the first final since 1978 – and only the second since 1938 – to not feature either Germany or Brazil, the French and Italians would both score in the early segments of the final; Zidane netting from the spot in the 7th minute and Marco Materazzi heading in an Andrea Pirlo corner in the 19th minute.
Zidane would then, infamously, turn from hero to villain as the deadlocked final entered into extra time, launching a fierce headbutt into the chest of Materazzi in the 110th minute of play to earn a red card.
Without their leading penalty taker, France would then go down to Italy in a penalty shootout; Fabio Grosso scoring the winning penalty after David Trezeguet’s miss.
France’ women’s national side has also reached the semi-finals of the Women’s World Cup on one occasion – 2011.
The Red Devils have only appeared in a single World Cup semi-final in their history, defeated in the penultimate stage of the 1986 tournament by Diego Maradona and eventual champions Argentina.
A part of 86’s Group B alongside hosts Mexico, Paraguay, and Iraq; Belgium would finish third in their group, only to advance to the knockout stages of the tournament by virtue of being the best performed third-placed finishers.
Belgium would come up against a highly fancied Soviet Union in their Round of 16 fixture, who were led by legendary Soviet coach Valeri Lobanovsky.
A pioneer of incorporating sports science into his coaching methods, Lobanovsky had tactically modeled the Soviet’s World Cup side on the team he had led to victory in the 1985/86 Cup Winners Cup, Dynamo Kyiv – with the Soviet squad also largely made of players from that team.
A brace from one of Lobanovsky’s Dynamo stars in Igor Belanov was canceled out by efforts from Belgium’s Enzo Scifo and Jan Ceulemans within the regulation 90, sending the clash into extra time.
Taking control in the resulting 30 minutes, the Belgians would take the lead through Stephane De Mol in 102nd minute, before a fantastic volley from Nico Claesen in the 110th then made it 4-2 to the Belgians.
Belanov converted a late penalty to make it 4-3, but Belgium would hold on, bestowing upon Belanov the dubious distinction of being only one of three players – the others being Ernest Wilimowski of Poland in 1938 and Josef Huegi of Switzerland in 1954 – to score a hat-trick but finish on the losing side of a World Cup fixture.
A perfect five from five penalty shootout would then propel Belgium over Spain in their quarter-final played at the Estadio Cuauhtémoc, and set up a meeting with Argentina in the semi-final.
Despite holding La Albiceleste to a goalless opening half in that contest, Belgium was unable to contain the wizardry of Maradona for an entire 90 minutes. Goals in the 51st and 63rd minutes from the little maestro would propel Argentina to the final, where they would defeat West Germany 3-2 at the Estadio Azteca to lift their second World Cup.
The side that you either love or love to hate has been to two World Cup semi-finals in its history, the first in 1966 en route to lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy on home soil and the second in 1990.
In 1990, England finished atop Group F in the opening stages of the tournament after drawing with the Republic of Ireland and European Champions the Netherlands in their opening two fixtures and defeating Egypt on matchday three.
David Platt would score in the 119th minute to propel the Three Lions past Belgium in the Round of 16; before England were taken once again to extra time in the quarter-finals by Cameroon.
A Gary Lineker penalty in the 105th minute did enough to sneak into England the semi-finals, where they would meet the old enemy: West Germany.
Andreas Brehme opened the scoring for the West German’s with a freakishly deflected free kick on the hour mark at the Stadio delle Alpi, only for the talismanic Lineker to tie things up with an 80th-minute strike.
As the semi-final headed to extra time, a 98th-minute decision by the Brazillian referee José Roberto Wright set the scene for one of the most famous, and heartbreaking, moments in footballing history.
Taking a heavy touch on the ball in the midfield, English lynchpin Paul Gascoigne desperately slid in an attempt to win it back, collecting West Germany’s Thomas Berthold.
Without hesitation Wright brandished a yellow card, meaning that “Gazza” – who had already been booked earlier in the tournament – would now miss the final if England were to qualify.
From that point forward a dejected Gascoigne left every ounce of himself on the pitch, using the knowledge that any English appearence in the final would be without him as the fuel to power a performance that left countless Germans in his wake.
Despite Gazza’s heroics though, the deadlock was unable to be broken and the game ultimately went to penalties.
Beginning a curse that would stay with England until the Round of 16 game against Colombia in 2018, the West Germans defeated England in the shootout and went on to down Argentina in the final.
Gazza’s tears as he left the pitch following that day became the defining image of Italia 90.
England’s women’s national side has also reached the semi-finals of the Women’s World Cup on one occasion – 2015.
Croatia didn’t waste time in reaching their first, and so far only, semi-final, reaching the penultimate stages of France 98 in what was their first World Cup as an independent nation.
Featuring the likes of Zvonimir Boban, Davor Šuker, Alen Bokšić, and current Melbourne Knights gaffer Aljoša Asanović, Croatia were drawn in Group H at the final World Cup of the 20th century alongside Argentina, Jamaica, and Japan.
A 3-1 defeat of Jamaica and a 1-0 victory over the Blue Samurai ensured that, despite a 1-0 loss to Argentina on matchday three, Croatia advanced to the Round of 16.
A penalty from Šuker in first-half extra time ensured that Croatia advanced past Romania in their resulting Round of 16 fixture, setting up a meeting with a heavily favored German side in the quarter-finals.
Despite coming into the contest in shaky form and with one of the oldest squads ever fielded by Germany in a competitive tournament, Die Mannschaft was considered the heavy favorites in the contest, having defeated Croatia 2-1 in Euro 96.
With the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff threatening for the Germans in the opening stages at the Stade de Gerland, it looked like Croatia were destined for a quarter-final exit; until a rash challenge from Christian Worns on Šuker resulted in his dismissal.
Taking advantage of the German’s disarray in the wake of the red card, Robert Jarni received a masterful pass from Mario Stanić and put the Croatians up 1-0.
Despite adopting fiercely attacking tactics in the second half, the Germans were unable to break down the Croatian defence and instead left themselves wide open for Goran Vlaović and Šuker to net goals on the counter.
Images of “Šuker man” – Šuker draping himself under the flag of Croatia in celebration of the victory – were beamed worldwide after the famous Croatian victory, with Czech newspaper Nedelni Blesk declaring that: “The aging German team thought their bulldog mentality would be enough, but they were wrong. Croatia’s attractive display sealed their fate.”
Croatia would then go on to place hosts France in the semi-final. Despite Šuker opening the scoring in that contest the Croatian magic would then run out, with the French rallying back to win 2-1 thanks to Lilian Thuram’s famous (or infamous depending upon your persuasion) brace.
The France-Croatia semi-final was also marred by the controversial 76th-minute dismissal of France’s Laurent Blanc.
After winning a free kick on the left wing, Zidane whipped the resulting free kick into the penalty area, only for referee Jose Maria Garcia Aranda to call a halt to proceedings as Croat defender Slaven Bilić fell to the turf holding his face. Thinking that Blanc had taken a swipe at his markers face as the ball was swung in, Aranda showed a straight red card – the first of his career – to “Le President”, meaning that he would miss the World Cup final.
Replays, however, showed that whilst the slightest of contact between Blanc and Bilić had been made, it was nowhere near enough to merit the reaction. Furthermore, Bilić had gone to the turf holding a completely different part of his head then the chin that Blanc had actually grazed.
While Bilić has since refused to apologise for the incident, he has said that if he had the power to change things, he would have wanted to see Blanc play in the final.
“He didn’t hit me like Mike Tyson, but he gave me a push,” Bilić told the Independent in 2006.
“At that moment I was panicking, because in nine out of 10 situations like that the referee goes yellow, yellow to both players.
“And I heard Igor Stimac tell me to go down. So I thought, no final, no third-place whatever, so I went down. I didn’t think, ‘Is he going to miss the final?’ I just wanted to protect myself.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. He hit me, and the referee came and gave him a red. I swear if I could change that so he could play in the final, I would. But I was just acting to protect myself.”