The Barcelona defender headed France to a 1-0 semi-final victory over Belgium in St Petersburg and into Sunday’s showdown with either Croatia or England and a chance to make up for the bitter disappointment of a final defeat by Portugal two years ago.
Asked if he was a good luck charm after reaching that final, he said: “No, I’m not at all a good luck charm – we didn’t win the Euros final, so that’s why it’s close to my heart now to reach this level at the World Cup.
“I hope it’s going to be different this time, I hope we will able to bring the World Cup back to France.”
Manager Didier Deschamps, who led the nation into that tournament, is bidding to become just the third man after Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer to win the World Cup as both player and coach, but is refusing to look back to his own triumph as a player in 1998.
He said: “I never, never, never, ever mention my own history. They know it. Some of them were not born, but they have seen pictures.
“That belongs to a lot of French people who lived through it, but not to the young generation. The story is different now, you can’t make comparisons. I can’t talk to them about players from 20 years ago, even from 10 years ago.
“I am here with them today to write a new page in history, the most beautiful page.
“I’m not saying that I’m not proud of what we did all together 20 years ago. It will stay there, nobody will be able to erase that, but you have to live in your times.
“We can’t really look back and see what is in the rear-view mirror. This is not how you are going to move forward.”
Disappointed Belgium boss Roberto Martinez spoke of his pride at what his players had achieved in falling just short of their aim for the tournament.
He said: “The disappointment is huge because the focus of the group was to try to win the tournament. It wasn’t about having a good tournament, it wasn’t about being happy to be in the top four, so it’s a really sad dressing room right now because the opportunity of being in the final was the only focus that we had.
“That makes me proud because we could have easily come to this stage and froze and just not been able to cope with what France have done in the past.
“France were in the final of the Euros – almost they are used to being in these sort of big games, and I thought we coped with that side really well, so I don’t want any of my players to be frustrated, disappointed.”
Martinez admitted Saturday’s third-fourth place play-off game is not one for which it will be easy to prepare, but challenged his players to see it as another opportunity.
He said: “That doesn’t happen too often – the only time that it happened in Belgian football was in 1986 and we finished fourth, so we need to understand that this is an important game.”
The Three Lions have the chance to reach just the second major tournament finale in their history on Wednesday as they take on Croatia in a mouth-watering Luzhniki Stadium semi-final.
Following in the footsteps of the heroes of 1966 had looked a pipe dream this summer, but Southgate has created an impressive bond and shaped his promising team into World Cup challengers.
The former defender suffered disappointment when England last reached the last four of a major tournament, missing the crucial spot-kick as Terry Venables’ men bowed out of Euro ’96 in a penalty shootout.
That pain that still haunts the manager, but years of English disappointment is not being felt by players ahead of the biggest match in a generation.
“I think we feel that is of no bearing to this team,” Southgate said. “We’ve been consistent about that. From the off, that was my problem because I’m part of that history.
“They’re getting blamed for what my generation and generations that followed did. But these guys had an opportunity to start from scratch and create their own history. That’s what we’re focused on.
“Most of them weren’t born when a lot of the stories we’re talking about happened, so why as a coach would I try and put that at their door?
“They should be judged on them as a team. I think, to be fair, the public have done that.
“They’ve seen we’ve got good lads who are incredibly proud to play, and are playing in a slightly different style to the one we’ve seen for a few years – playing with confidence on a big stage. So, they should – we’ve got trust in them doing that.”
Southgate praised his players for their diligence and commitment ahead of a game that he believes his players approach it as well prepared as possible.
It might be tempting to hope for good luck at such a crucial juncture, but the only superstitious spell in the England manager’s coaching career was fleeting.
“I’ll tell you a story about me and superstitions,” Southgate said.
“When I was managing at Middlesbrough, we had a game at Reading and I was under a bit of pressure. When I went to get changed at the hotel, I’d forgotten my socks. So, I went to the kit-man and I borrowed a pair of black goalkeeper socks. Anyway, we won and the staff made this big thing about my lucky socks, saying I had to wear them next game.
“So, we were at home and I went to get changed and I thought, ‘Hmmm, shall I wear those socks?’. We still needed the win but I thought, ‘No, it’s ridiculous’. So, we lost the game and then on the Tuesday we were playing again, so I thought, ‘Well, I’d better put the socks on’. So, I did and we won 2-0. And then I went upstairs and got sacked.
“So, really, from that moment, superstitions have rather gone out the window.”
Southgate laughed as he regaled the story, with his relaxed demeanour slightly surprising ahead of the biggest match of his managerial career.
“Let me tell you, whether we win or lose the game, my life will not change,” the England boss said with a smile.
“I will go home, take the dogs for a run, disappear to Yorkshire, but it is of course a chance to be involved in something incredibly special.
“I have been in sport in different areas for long enough to know what my life is day to day.
“I will get more attention and it won’t be easy to go out for meals if I am in certain places but it won’t change my view on the world or the things I attempt to do.”
But the odds on Southgate receiving a knighthood are sure to shorten further if England reach the World Cup final.
“They’ll be the best team we’ve played in terms of what they’re capable of doing with the ball, and what individuals are capable of, definitely,” the Three Lions boss added.
“For us as a team, yes, it’s another chance to create a small piece of history.
“We’re only the second team to reach a semi-final out of our country, and that’s quite significant.
“In 1996, we had every game at Wembley and that was an advantage for us.
“We’ve got to keep getting over those hurdles and I know we talked about the success of the younger teams but this is a much harder, much bigger levels for the players and the belief is building as things are happening.
“The more of these tests we can come through, the better, not just for now, but moving forward.”
Zlatko Dalic says the UAE will always be close to his heart as his Gulf coaching spell helped shape his pursuit of World Cup glory.
Just 18 months ago the Croatian left the Emirates when a three-year stint as coach of Al Ain ended after he came so close to making them Asia’s best club side.
A missed penalty by Douglas was crucial in an agonising 3-2 AFC Champions League final loss on aggregate to Korean outfit Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2016.
Now Dalic stands on the brink of the greatest achievement of all, having led his national team to a World Cup semi final against England.
But when the 51-year-old steps out at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow tonight, he will recall how his seven-year Arabian adventure helped shape this momentous achievement.
First with Saudi Arabian clubs Al-Faisaly and Al Hilal and then at Al Ain in 2014, where he was immediately under pressure to restore their fortunes after struggles with Jorge Fossati and Quique Sanchez Flores.
Dalic duly delivered with the UAE President’s Cup, the Arabian Gulf League title and Arabian Gulf Super Cup before Champions League heartbreak.
“I’m very happy with my time in the Gulf, it was fantastic, I learned and enjoyed so much,” he told Sport360. “I will never forget the Emirates, never forget Al Ain, it is my club.
“I spent three years there and won the Champions League, also reached the semi finals, and after that I came to the national team. It was a big change for me, but now I’m in the World Cup. It’s a dream, I’m so happy.”
After a struggle in qualification, Dalic was appointed in October and sparked Croatia into a second-placed finish behind Iceland with a vital win over Ukraine and subsequent play-off success against Greece.
“How it all happened, it is fantastic,” he added. “But this is life, this is what you work for.
“This is the national team, this is my country and this is the World Cup. This is the best job for me, forever.
“In the future I can be coach of Brazil or wherever, but this will still be the best job for me and I want to do well in this.”
Dalic is certainly doing well, matching his country’s best-ever achievement of a last-four spot in the 1998 finals, where they were beaten by hosts France.
Thank you for supporting my National team Croatia!🇦🇪🇸🇦🇭🇷 pic.twitter.com/r4m4nqxtF1— Zlatko Dalić (@DalicZlatko) 10 July 2018
But, with players like Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, he always felt they could “surprise”. “I believe in the team,” he said.
Captain Modric, who helped Real to a third successive Champions League trophy in May, will be a key figure against Gareth Southgate’s men.
At 33, he is an example to every young footballer according to teammate Vedran Corluka.
“It’s all down to hard work,” said the defender of Modric. “After the game, before the game, he looks after his body. This is a professional player and every young player needs to look at Luka and how they need to look after their body and to be at this level.
“He won the Champions League, but playing for your club is something different to the national team. It’s about Croatian passion. It’s a special feeling to play for your country and Luka feels the same and wants to help us do well.”