Who could forget, for example, the heroic efforts of Japan, who so nearly dumped Belgium out in the last-16, or South Korea, who strained every sinew to take out reigning champions Germany, even though they knew they were already gone from the competition.
For Africa, there was extreme disappointment, as none of the five sides got out of the group stages, the first time an African team has failed to reach the knockout rounds since 1982. And yet a young Nigerian side gave plenty to cheer, as did Senegal, so unlucky to be eliminated on the fair play rule.
Germany’s shock exit led a clutch of surprisingly poor displays from former winners, with Argentina’s abysmal effort barely deserving a last-16 spot and Spain, after sacking their coach, fumbling their own way into the knockout rounds, before being knocked out by the hosts.
Russia were arguably the surprise of the tournament, the lowest-ranked side in the competition doing fantastically well to make it all the way to the quarterfinals, as did Sweden, who proved that individual talent is no substitute for team effort, in making their own quarterfinal.
Brazil sparkled at times, but in the end defensive frailties were shown up by Belgium, whose golden generation are finally living up to their reputation, with Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku all in sparkling form en route to ending South American interest in the competition.
Belgium against France this evening has all the makings of a cracking game, with some of the best players in the world going head-to-head in Saint Petersburg. France, like Belgium, have a jaw-dropping array of talent at their disposal, with Kylian Mbappe surely at the head of the next generation of star players. The 19-year-old tore Argentina to pieces in the last-16, and was excellent against Uruguay as well.
On the other side of the draw, meanwhile, Croatia and England are entitled to be pleasantly surprised to be in a semifinal that few could have predicted at the start of the tournament. Croatia have a formidable side, built around the remarkable midfield talents of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, but have also often failed to live up to the sum of their parts at previous competitions.
This time, however, they stormed through a tough-looking group and if they have looked edgy in the knockout rounds, they have held their nerve when it matters in two penalty shoot-outs.
England, meanwhile, came into this competition surrounded by only a small percentage of the usual hype that accompanies their World Cup adventures. And maybe this has helped as Gareth Southgate’s side have played above themselves to make the semifinals, even winning their first ever penalty shootout at a World Cup.
Is it really coming home, as the song goes, for fans who have mostly endured only heartache at major tournaments? Only time will tell.
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