Back in the summer of 2002 at the World Cup in Korea and Japan, ink was filled on the sheets of the daily newspapers that we were witnessing a World Cup full of shocks and surprises. It was hard to argue, a Luis Figo inspired Portugal had lost to the USA 3-2 and at one point during the game had found themselves 3-0 down. Senegal had beaten France and the champions would end up exiting at the group stages. Later in the competition South Korea would beat both Spain and Italy and we had the genuine chance of a World Cup final between South Korea and Turkey.
In the end Germany and Brazil won their respective semi-finals although only by one goal each and the 2002 finals finally fell back into tradition. Some call it the cream always rising to the top. A Germany-Brazil final certainly won it over for the football purists. The two most successful teams wrapped up a ‘shock’ World Cup finals and Ronaldo redeemed himself from his nightmare France 98’ final and the story ended there.
The best player in the world at that time, Ronaldo, picked up the World Cup and grabbed both goals in a 2-0 win. Job done.
The final four
Fast forward to 2018 and the “shocks” make the 2002 finals look like a routine competition. The semi-finals have France pitted against Belgium and Croatia will take on England. Of the four teams left we can only look at France and their success rate of the past 20 years to gauge any normality. Belgium have been a very special team for the past 24 months and one is reminded of the brilliant Dutch teams of the 1970s when looking at Roberto Martinez’s side.
The way they are playing and the way they knocked out Brazil in the quarter- finals suggest that they are no longer pretenders.
Croatia have blown hot and cold in this World Cup. They brushed aside Argentina 3-0 but labored to wins against both Denmark and host nation, Russia. Their devastating midfield remains their main arsenal with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic pulling the strings. The ghosts of France 98’ where Croatia surprisingly reached the semi-finals have been somewhat vanquished. Perhaps reaching the latter stages of major tournaments may just become the norm for the nation.
Finally to England, who for the first time since 1990, has shown team spirit that has begun through the coach Gareth Southgate and infected the team like lighting to water. And yet for all the confidence England do not look like the finished product, surely the European Championships in 2020 will be the peak of this team, and it should be noted that the final will take place in London at Wembley Stadium. However, despite England’s technical shortcomings it may not matter given the World Cup we are experiencing.
A World Cup like nothing before
In past World Cup’s the very best players have risen to the occasion and helped the heavyweight nations to claim victory and it’s quite a roll call. Bastian Schweinsteiger for Germany in 2014, Andres Iniesta for Spain in 2010, Gianluigi Buffon for Italy in 2006, Ronaldo for Brazil in 2002, Zinedine Zidane for France in 1998, Romario for Brazil in 1994, Lothar Matthaeus for Germany in 1990, Diego Maradona for Argentina in 1986 and we could go on and mention Pele, Gerd Muller and Bobby Moore.
There has, in short, always been heroes and we could well suggest that the heroes left the building in Russia 2018 much too early.
Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar to suggest the top three. However, that doesn’t mean that new heroes can’t be found. Harry Kane for England has been phenomenal and he looks set to win the golden boot with his goals. Kylian Mbappe for France became the first teenager since Pele to score two goals in a knockout game at the World Cup. Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne have both been sensational for Belgium.
Old heroes have died out here and so has tradition. The World Cup in Russia has turned a page that was 80 years old and a new dawn has arisen and any one of these four nations left could be claiming the glory and gold of the World Cup on July 15 in Moscow.