The semi-finalists at World Cup 2018 feel the hand of history.
For all the global superstars France churn out with enviable frequency, it is 12 years since they made it this far. The vast majority of Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’, who will feature on Tuesday against Les Bleus at Saint Petersburg Stadium, weren’t even born when 1986’s vintage were downed by a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina.
Here, we compare how the current competitors match up to their compatriots who last reached the World Cup semi-finals:
Goalkeeper: A cigarette-smoking, eccentric free spirit and 1998 World Cup winner offers a veritable contrast to the man currently between the sticks for Les Bleus.
Fabian Barthez boasted remarkable athleticism despite his small stature for a goalkeeper, but was on the decline by the time 2006 came around. The then 34-year-old kept four clean sheets in Germany, though he critically could not repel any of Italy’s penalties in the final.
Hugo Lloris showed atypical frailty last season for France and Tottenham. Yet the Les Bleus skipper reinforced his quality with the save of the tournament from Uruguay full-back Martin Caceres’ header in the quarter-finals.
2006 rating: 6/10
2018 rating: 8/10
Defence: In 2006, France boasted one of the planet’s best rearguards.
Bayern Munich’s ultra-reliable Willy Sagnol had usurped Lilian Thuram at right-back, with the legendary 1998 winner moving inside. Fellow centre-back William Gallas was at the height of his powers and an emerging Eric Abidal was a year away from moving to Barcelona.
Contemporary Barca centre-back Samuel Umtiti and Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane have played a key role from centre-back in securing three clean sheets from five matches in Russia.
At full-back, issues emerge. Benjamin Pavard is shoehorned in on the right and Lucas Hernandez erratic on the left.
2006 rating: 9/10
2018 rating: 7/10
Midfield: One of football’s great figures experienced an iconic – and incendiary – send-off in Germany.
Madrid playmaker Zinedine Zidane turned back the clock to eliminate holders Brazil in the quarter-finals, chipped in a penalty during the final versus Italy and then head-butted Marco Materazzi for a violent last act on a football pitch. Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele provided unmatched back up.
Head coach Didier Deschamps appears to have finally pulled off a balancing act in the middle of the park. Chelsea defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante is heir apparent to Makelele.
Manchester United’s Paul Pogba has blossomed thanks to the utilisation of a midfield marker, usually Blaise Matuidi. Pogba’s surges from deep and superb passing range are key facets.
2006 rating: 8/10
2018 rating: 8/10
Attack: Deschamps has at his disposal an attack of rare depth and quality. Whether he gets the optimum out of them is up for debate.
Antoine Griezmann has three goals, but only performed anywhere near his best against Uruguay. Centre forward Olivier Giroud has not registered an attempt on target, although the head coach cherishes his hold-up play.
Teenager Kylian Mbappe put in a revelatory display against Argentina and has been a consistent outlet.
In 2006, Thierry Henry was one of the sport’s most-feared strikers at Arsenal and grew into the tournament with three goals. Wingers Florent Malouda and Franck Ribery were on the way to establishing themselves in the international arena.
2006 rating: 8/10
2018 rating: 7/10
2006 rating: 31/40
2018 rating: 30/40
Goalkeeper: A maverick figure acted as last line of defence for Belgium at Mexico ’86.
Bayern Munich’s Jean-Marie Pfaff is still revered for his achievements in that tournament, ending Spain’s ambitions during a last-eight penalty shootout. His tremendous spring and vibrant personality earned him a spot in the FIFA 100 list of the greatest living players in 2004.
Current incumbent Thibaut Courtois is built of different stuff. The confident 26-year-old stands half-a-foot taller and this elongated frame is key to his goalkeeping.
Against Brazil in the quarter-finals, Courtois followed in Pfaff’s footsteps. The Chelsea player made nine saves and restricted the pre-tournament favourites to just one goal.
1986 rating: 8/10
2018 rating: 8/10
Defence: Sound foundations did not underpin Belgium’s 1986 achievements.
The likes of Eric Gerets (Lion of Flanders) and Michel Renquin were part of a porous backline that conceded 15 times in seven matches, along the way to finishing fourth. In the second round alone, Soviet Union’s Igor Belanov notched a hat-trick.
A mixed view can be taken of this year’s side. Roberto Martinez’s 3-4-2-1 formation has left huge spaces to be exploited out wide, but Paris Saint-Germain right wing-back Thomas Meunier has come up with vital assists.
Even a return to a four-man defence against Brazil last time out still led to many chances being ceded. But defenders of real quality are possessed in Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany.
1986 rating: 5/10
2018 rating: 7/10
Midfield: Pillars of strength are found in Belgium’s engine room.
Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini grew up together at Standard Liege, before heading their separate ways.
Fellaini has been decisive in the knockouts. He came off the bench to head Belgium level in the comeback win against Japan and then carried out an adroit nullifying job on Brazil’s Neymar.
The extraordinary Jan Ceulemans was the heartbeat of the 1986 side, his displays putting him in the team of the tournament. An emerging Enzo Scifo, who at 20-years old would go on to win the tournament’s Best Young Player Award, provided able support.
1986 rating: 8/10
2018 rating: 7/10
Attack: It doesn’t get much better than Belgium’s existing attack.
Pushed forward from centre midfield versus Brazil, Manchester City’s incomparable Kevin De Bruyne struck the decisive second. Fellow supreme playmaker Eden Hazard has two assists and goals in Russia.
Up top, United’s Romelu Lukaku is in a fight with England’s Harry Kane for the Golden Boot. His storming assists versus Brazil showed a different aspect of his game.
Less glitter surrounded Belgium’s 1986 attack, but there was no lack of quality. Franky Vercauteren on the left wing was nicknamed ‘The Little Prince’ and striker Nico Claesen struck three times.
1986 rating: 7/10
2018 rating: 9/10
1986 rating: 28/40
2018 rating: 31/40
Dumbs Gone to Iceland, Ice Wallies, Cod Help Us, England’s Greatest Humiliation, England’s Darkest Day.
Whether Gareth Southgate’s charges now return from Russia with the World Cup or not, they’ve already achieved the impossible.
It is only two summers since newspapers – august or downmarket, broadsheet and tabloid – agonisingly detailed the national game’s nadir. Sunday’s front pages were full of contrasting cheer and bombast about an ascension to the semi-finals that resided only in hope, rather than expectation, three weeks ago.
For the first time since a special sun-kissed spell in Italy 28 years ago, the globe’s grandest competition has not elicited wild recrimination from the fourth estate. This is what a 2-0 triumph against Sweden can do for the mood.
England supporters have been conditioned, by failure after futile failure, to expect nothing but disappointment.
They are also meant to suffer heart-wrenching sorrow from penalty shootouts. Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce in 1990, David Batty in 1998, Steven Gerrard in 2006.
That onerous weight was lifted against Colombia last week.
Confounding rock-bottom expectation is head coach Southgate’s great gift.
A ‘Golden Generation’ has come and gone, leaving nothing but unfulfilled potential in their wake.
The last occasion when English heads were held this high was Euro 1996. Halcyon days when football was first “coming home”.
Southgate – the fall guy from the shootout then against Germany that killed hopes of cherished success on home soil – has shown leadership and dignity in a period when political figures wallow in the swamp that British discourse has descended into.
Hard or soft Brexit, cast to one side as a fractured populace unites under one banner.
Ruptures caused at Euro 2016 should have taken several generations to heal.
England’s misadventure ended with debutants Iceland – the smallest nation to ever qualify – rebounding from Wayne Rooney’s fourth-minute penalty to inflict a 2-1 defeat during the round of 16.
This wrenched out the stitches applied to wounds caused by the caustic failure at World Cup 2014.
Both humiliations were endured under Roy Hodgson.
Shame that was added to when initial replacement Sam Allardyce’s position was rendered untenable in September 2016 after one qualifying triumph.
This followed allegations of impropriety about getting around Football Association bans on third-party ownership of players.
To now be one win away from a first World Cup final since 1966, two wins away from following in the lionised footsteps of Sir Bobby Charlton and Co., seemed an impossible prospect on that inexcusable day against Iceland at Allianz Riviera.
This isn’t a perfect picture. And Southgate doesn’t pertain to paint one.
Rewind back to Italia ’90 and England’s progression to the last-four was not plain sailing, either.
Stultifying draws against Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands was followed by a tense 1-0 win against Egypt to advance from Group F.
From there, extra-time was needed to see off Belgium. Cameroon then came from behind to move within eight minutes of progression to the semis at their expense.
In comparison, England’s contemporary run has been more mundane.
Enlivening victories, late and heavy, were handed out to minnows Tunisia and Panama.
The luxury of resting stars versus Belgium was afforded as Group G wound down in a game that both probably wanted to lose. Legitimate claims were made to being the better side against Colombia and Sweden in the knockouts.
Sir Bobby Robson, Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne. Names who were written into England’s lore the last time they reached this rarified stage.
Southgate, Harry Kane and Harry Maguire have already matched this legacy.
The challenge is to secure betterment, beginning with Wednesday’s date with destiny against Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium.
A country, until this ethereal month rendered weary by decades of underachievement, now expects.
Friday was not a good one for those who ascribe an inexorable quality to the chant “football’s coming home”.
A fitting champion emerged from two heavyweight contests that helped guarantee a European winner for the fourth-successive running.
These opening quarter-finals set a standard that the weaker side of the draw can only aspire to. England coasting towards a 2-0 victory against limited Sweden doesn’t cut it.
Next Sunday’s showpiece at Luzhniki Stadium has had plenty of lustre removed by the unavoidable conclusion that the true decider will have been played in Saint Petersburg five days previously.
Inevitability now defines the engraving of France or Belgium’s name on the trophy.
Antoine Griezmann made his own fortune and sent Les Bleus into the last-four with a 2-0 triumph against Edinson Cavani-less Uruguay. No flourish, but quiet assuredness – the very definition of a Didier Deschamps-side.
Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez then ripped up the script from the close shave against Japan and moved Kevin De Bruyne to centre stage as pre-tournament favourites Brazil were sent packing thanks to a 2-1 victory.
De Rode Duivels performed like angels in the competition’s defining match to date. Even usual lummox Marouane Fellaini showed remarkable self-discipline when tasked with keeping perennial provocateur Neymar deathly quiet.
Battle lines are being drawn by geographical neighbours who have produced squads with a combined value estimated at more than €2 billion (Dh8.7bn) by the CIES Football Observatory.
Les Bleus have been a walking exhibition of self-control through their time in Russia. Belgium in contrast, were European qualifying’s joint-top scorers and have continued this valuable trait.
Uruguay were kept at arm’s length by France and then punished for both slack marking at a set-piece for Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane’s header, plus Griezmann’s pot shot from 25 yards that slipped through Fernando Muslera’s fingertips.
Deschamps’ outfit have averaged just 11 shots per game. In Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud, they have a centre forward leading the line who has yet to produce an attempt on target this summer from four matches – never mind score a goal.
Exclude the madness of the 4-3, round-of-16 win against Argentina and they’ve conceded just once in four other matches – Mile Jedinak’s penalty for Australia in France’s 2-1 opening Group C victory.
Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ of De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Co. are averaging 17 attempts per match. This World Cup’s leading scorers with 14 goals showcased their double threat in an open and entertaining contest against Brazil.
Buoyed by Fernandinho’s own goal, they produced one of this tournament’s most-enlivening moves when Lukaku tore forward from deep and De Bruyne sent a precision finish past the helpless Alisson.
The South Americans had three times as many attempts as their European conquerors (27 to nine) and bossed possession (58 per cent to 42 per cent).
In the second-half alone, Belgium recorded just one shot on target to Brazil’s 17. They prevailed because of Thibaut Courtois’ masterclass between the posts, plus a generous call from the Video Assistant Referee to not punish centre-back Vincent Kompany for a bludgeoning foul on Manchester City club-mate Gabriel Jesus.
France allowed just 21 attempts against them in three group-stage matches, plus another 21 combined in their two knockout trials to date.
.@paulpogba contre l'Uruguay c'est:— Equipe de France (@equipedefrance) July 7, 2018
25 duels (meilleur total du match)
56% de duels gagnés
100 ballons touchés
8 ballons récupérés (meilleur total du match)
5 dégagements défensifs#FiersdetreBleus #FRAURU pic.twitter.com/UnTRfNTbz1
Vantage points on the value of this stoic statistic produce contrasting views.
Either the 1998 champions are exhibiting the necessary defensive acumen to repeat the achievement of two decades prior, or the theme of underperformance by electric constituent parts has been extended from Euro 2016’s painful run on home soil to defeat in the final.
One area of the pitch in which France are excelling, however, is centre midfield.
The boundless Paul Pogba and ubiquitous N’Golo Kante have clicked into gear at the right time.
Belgium defensive midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel will be confident of breaking up this partnership. In front of them, De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku are an attacking unit without compare when at their searing best.
A grandstand occasion awaits in Saint Petersburg.