Unlikely names at Final Four
MOSCOW — English fish and chips against Croatia’s famous fish risotto. France’s vin et fromage versus Belgian beer and waffles.
Players nicknamed Slab Head, Rocky and 37.
Welcome to the final four of a new-look World Cup, perhaps the most improbable of soccer’s 21 championships.
Host Russia left in tears Saturday night, jilted like a suitor at the end of a Pushkin poem when it tied Croatia late in extra time only to lose the last quarterfinal on penalty kicks.
Germany’s Teutonic efficiency departed earlier, along with Brazil’s yellow-shirted samba style and Spain’s tiki-taka pass-a-thon.
Lionel Messi’s Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal couldn’t get past the round of 16. Italy’s Azzurri didn’t even earn an invite.
“Whoever was the favorites to win, the big teams, are home,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said through a translator. “Those who are hard-working, who are compact, who are united and who are well-organized, they are here in Russia, and this is the character of the four teams remaining in the tournament.”
Celebrer la nouvelle.
First up Les Bleus vs. De Rode Duivels on Tuesday night in St. Petersburg, a matchup of Western European neighbors.
Then The Three Lions vs. Vatreni the following night in Moscow.
Is football coming home or is the title going somewhere new?
“We’re in a World Cup semifinal. Whether we’re in the top four in the world is something we would still have to prove,” England manager Gareth Southgate said. “It will be a sign to all clubs that, whether it’s in England or abroad, that English players can play, that we’ve got players with super technique.”
By the long-maligned FIFA rankings, these matchups are unlikely.
Belgium is ranked third in the world, France seventh, England 12th and Croatia 20th.
Since winning its only title at Wembley in 1966, England had reached the semifinals just once, losing to West Germany on penalty kicks at Italia 1990. France lost semifinals in 1958 and 1982, won its only World Cup at home in 1998, then lost the 2006 final — sacre bleu! — to Italy in the infamous Zinedine Zidane head-butt game.
Croatia fell to France in the 1998 semifinals in its first appearance as an independent nation after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. It is known mostly for its red-and-white checkerboard jersey.