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1: BRAZIL QUASHED IN TACTICAL MASTERCLASS
Without question the most tantalising clash on paper up to that point, the quarter-final tie between Brazil and Belgium put the 5-time champions on a collision course with football’s perennial dark horses.
Infamous for somehow amounting to less than the sum of their parts, the onus was equally on Belgium to truly announce their arrival on the big stage, as it was on Brazil to take one step further on their path to redemption.
If there was a match you had to sit your hypothetical/actual non-footballing friend down and introduce what football is all about, this had to have been it.
Hazard’s effortless dribbling style was a throwback to the Ronaldos and Ronaldinhos of yesteryear, Lukaku looked every bit the athletic and rampaging forward for whom United saw fit to part with £75 million, while Fellaini relished the less showy task of bullying Brazil’s diminutive attackers off the ball.
However, the true mastermind behind Brazil’s undoing was former Everton manager Roberto Martinez; by crowding out the midfield with 3 defensive-minded midfielders shielding a conventional four-man defence, Neymar and Coutinho were forced wide and Gabriel Jesus locked in a one-sided aerial battle against the towering Vincent Kompany.
While there was an element of misfortune in Fernandinho’s own goal, Belgium’s second was the perfect execution of the sort counter-attacking break Martinez’s charges must have sought after all night.
Finisher turned supplier as Lukaku overpowered Paulinho in the middle of the park, playing De Bruyne through to exploit the space left by backtracking Brazil defenders and angle a sumptuous strike past Courtois. Bring on le France.
2: DO TEAMS PLAY BETTER AT "HOME"?
As the last torchbearers of the South American continent, Brazil’s elimination meant that the teams still left in contention in the semi-finals were exclusively European.
Contrast this with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where Brazil and Argentina joined the Netherlands and eventual winners Germany at the same juncture of the tournament.
Placing this in context of the wider battle between the continents, this will mark the 4th consecutive year an European nation has won the World Cup regardless of the result on Sunday between France and Croatia, with South America’s last triumph being Brazil’s famous 2002 victory. This had us thinking: to what extent does the geography of the host nation determine which participating teams progress to the semi-finals of the World Cup or in other words, does playing in one’s own continent confer any advantage?
A glance into the history of the competition reveals that this is ostensibly the case; the first-ever World Cup in 1930 was hosted and won by Uruguay (although much smaller in scale), with Italy following suit to host and win in 1934 as well as retain their crown in 1938 France. 1950 then saw Uruguay wrest back to the title in Brazil and in fact, all World Cups excluding Pele’s famous exploits for Brazil in Sweden 1958, Brazil’s last victory in South Korea/Japan 2002 as well as Spain’s and Germany’s more recent successes in South Africa and Brazil respectively have been won by nations in the same continent as the host country.
Be it swifter acclimatisation to the weather, relative ease of access for supporters or other subliminal factors, there is a statistical probability that your side are in for a good shout if the host country isn’t an ocean away. Where is the next World Cup being held again?
3: MODRIC AND CROATIA HAVE ALREADY WON
While Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat and charges have had their fairytale run halted by Croatia on Thursday, neutrals turned their eye to the climactic finale of yet another underdog story that has unfolded alongside the English one.
Having come into being in 1991, Croatia’s best performance was a third-place finish in their debut at the 1998 World Cup after falling at the semi-finals to hosts France featuring current coach Didier Deschamps- a stunning feat for a nation 4.1 million people and perhaps fitting that France once again stood in the way of Modric and co. in the Final.
If your team was already out at this stage, you might have found yourself somewhat emotionally vested in the touching story of Luka Modric: just as most of his national teammates, the horrors of war intertwined with Croatia’s bloody succession from socialist Yugoslavia meant that Modric was born into an environment where the threat of violence and death were a reality of everyday life.
Unfortunately, the conflict was to be the source of personal tragedy; his grandfather (also named Luka) was shot by Serbian nationalists violently opposed to Croatian independence. When he wasn’t spending his early years as a refugee, football in the carpark of Hotel Iz in Zadar was a temporary but welcome reprieve from the smoke, gunfire and falling grenades- no other cliched rags-to-riches story comes close.
Now a world-class midfield architect and tireless workhorse rolled into one, his footballing qualities are unquestionable- he is the one player the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Isco rely on to maintain possession and remain composed under any circumstance.
The engine room behind Madrid’s 3 consecutive European successes, the 32-year-old is blessed with a versatile range of passing and has developed the fortitude to embrace physical aspects of the game, often displaying a steely tenacity that belies his slightness of frame.
More importantly, Modric’s abilities have been in full flow this summer and fully deserves the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament; he has played a talismanic role in his side’s 100% record in the group stages and despite the heartbreak of a Final loss, will go down in history as part of a Croatian team who have given a terrific account of themselves and above all, their absolute everything into the game.
4: WERE ENGLAND ACTUALLY THAT GOOD?
The events of last night means that Harry Kane has claimed the Golden Boot despite England’s fourth-placed finish, after having failed to avenge their group stage defeat against Belgium in the third-place playoff.
The mood in the England camp and among supporters across the world remains upbeat and more importantly, the general consensus seems to be of the view that this England side have turned a corner by truly redefining what the shirt represents, with Kieran Trippier and Jordan Pickford producing outstanding performances.
But now that the tournament is done and dusted, questions can now be raised as part of an objective assessment of England’s performance- namely, were England actually that good?
Their opening 2-1 win against Tunisia was attained courtesy of a late Harry Kane goal, while their 6-1 thrashing of Panama was helped along by 2 penalties resulting from the sort of defending you’d expect from players turning up to Sunday League after a late-night bender, though it still kickstarted the party atmosphere and launched a thousand memes.
England’s first true test against credible opposition in the form of Belgium was one they failed, though both sides had already secured progression to the knockout stages and the only stakes in the balance was the option of playing either Japan or Colombia.
Admittedly, they were largely dominant against a James Rodriguez-less Colombian side and it is worth taking into consideration that most of the opposition have or still ply their trade at top European sides including Juventus and AC Milan, although it took yet another penalty to translate their ample possession to a tangible lead before famously prevailing in the shootout. Sweden proved less challenging opposition, with the former establishing a 2-0 lead with goals from Dele Alli and Harry Maguire highlighting a glaring gulf in technical ability between the sides.
While this England team are far more comfortable in possession than their predecessors, enjoying more of the ball in all matches except their group stage tie against Belgium as well as developing a reputation as set-play specialists, they could perhaps have done with more incisive finishing from their top scorer in open play at the more crucial junctures of their campaign.
5: LA COUPE, C'EST MOI
On the 20th anniversary of France’s last and first World Cup victory, a resounding 4-2 win over Croatia in the 2018 World Cup means that your French colleagues/acquaintances are probably still hungover, still celebratory and have never been more proud to be French.
A Mandzukic own goal, Griezmann penalty and two pieces of individual brilliance from Pogba and then Mbappe in one of the highest-scoring Finals in history meant that France have put the disappointment of Euro 2016 well behind them- all while affording to leave players at home of such a high calibre they could have formed a title-winning team on their own.
Prior to 2016, France have endured an abysmal 10 years marked by a series of disappointing performances and disharmony since Zidane’s swansong; a disastrous 2010 World Cup when Malouda, Evra and Anelka managed to row with then-manager Raymond Domenech and the fitness coach on separate occasions, when the entire squad decided to boycott training at the same World Cup and an underage sex scandal involving Franck Ribery, Mathieu Valbuena and Karim Benzema that has effectively left them exiled from international football.
With youth very much on their side, Les Bleus’ conquest has not just signalled a comeback from all this, but may well only be the opening stanza of an era of French dominance- Kylian Mbappe can only get better with age and a large chunk of this winning squad will be entering their physical prime come Euro 2020 and Qatar in 2022.
As celebrations carried on late into the night, things couldn’t be looking rosier for French football at the moment.