International

Week Three: Going home, coming home

AND then there were four. Two good teams, two sides that got a bit lucky, managed their tournament well and worked their way through. If it turns out to be Belgium v England, then the Premier League’s grandees will be making merry, for it will be two teams of Premier players fighting it out for the game’s greatest prize.

There’s been a lot of nonsense written about England’s success, that this is some form of turning point in the rebirth of the national team. It may well prove to be the case, but the sentiment surrounding the team, Gareth Southgate and this World Cup is based on the fact England have not screwed-up this time. For once, maybe for the first time ever, they have outperformed. Like 1990, though, they have rode the luck of the draw. In 1990, it was Egypt, Belgium and Cameroon, this time it’s Tunisia, Panama, Colombia and Sweden. Never mind, they have come unstuck enough times in the past.

There’s one reason why, whatever happens, Southgate and his charges will return home to a hero’s welcome – there is no hubris. Southgate has managed the media, the team, expectations and himself superbly. And the team is unassuming, responsive and good natured. Compare that to past England World Cup campaigns in the Beckham era, all WAGS, claims of “we’re the Golden Generation” and underperformance, and it was little wonder people were tired of an era that was characterised by empty boasts and hollow displays. This England team, fairly modest it may be, has given everything and it is now two games away from winning the competition.

That may be too much to expect, for France and Belgium are better equipped and indeed, Croatia have Modric and Rakitic. They are, arguably, better than most people think, which means for the first time, England will be up against a decent side. Chances will have to be made, taken and buried in the back of the net. Proper chances, not set pieces.

Who will win the big clash of neighbours, France and Belgium? France have improved game-by-game and they certainly have the big-game players, but the same applies to Belgium, who have the considerable feather in the cap of beating Brazil. It’s a tough one to call, but GOTP is opting for a Belgium v England final on July 15.

As for the departed teams, Russia just fell short, but they should be pleased. Uruguay, too, were better than more celebrated South Americans. Sweden were difficult but uninspiring. As for Brazil, Neymar lost his chance of making his name in the World Cup. He may never get to do that.

With Germany, Argentina, Brazil and Spain all going home earlier than they anticipated, this has been an interesting competition – pleasingly without trouble – that may yet have a twist or two in the tale. How good it would be to have a new name on the trophy, but equally for any Englishman, how wonderful if, for once, expectations could be exceeded.

Photo: PA

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