The World Cup semi-final between France and Belgium is wrapped in intriguing narratives and, while history is weighted in favour of Les Bleus, this tournament has been all about scripting the unexpected.
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If you thought Senegal’s fair play faux paux exit was cruel, try this one. France and Belgium are two of the most likeable and entertaining teams at the 2018 World Cup.
But sport is cruel and, for one nation, the dream will die on Tuesday night. The fixture is packed with intriguing narratives.
For France, this is about so much more than emulating the heroes of 1998. It’s a chance to stick two fingers up at the right-wing narrative that has taken a foothold the national discourse, just like it did two decades ago.
Then Belgium have Romelu Lukaku, who has been outspoken about prejudice in Belgium and growing up dirt poor.
On the pitch, both sides prefer an attacking approach at all costs. Yes, even if that means almost losing to Japan. Barring a brief bit of performance art from Kylian Mbappé, both have been a refreshing antidote to the unnecessary theatrics that so often ruins football at top level.
Lukaku even went out of his way to dismiss any chance of a penalty at this very World Cup after tumbling in the box.
But while the two sides are remarkably similar in their output on the pitch, the coaches behind them are notably different.
Roberto Martinez, a journeyman footballer with a comparatively modest managerial career, values the style of play as much as the results. He is supported by a French icon, Thierry Henry, who was part of the 1998 World Cup-winning squad.
Henry has remained in the shadows during the tournament so far, but now he has to help a team beat the country of his birth, the questions have inevitably cropped up. All media requests to him have been declined, but his countrymen have been more than happy to add to the hype.
“It’s bizarre,” Didier Deschamps, France’s coach, told Téléfoot about Henry’s choice of gig. Olivier Giroud, didn’t mince his words either, saying: “I would be proud to show Titi that he chose the wrong camp.”
But Henry shying away from the limelight is nothing new. He’s done so ever since he joined Martinez’s team back in 2016. He’s given just one interview on the subject, only emphasising that this is not about him. He told a local television station: “I am not the national manager, neither am I the assistant manager.”
“I’m the T3, the third coach. From the beginning I have said that everybody had to keep calm. It’s not the Thierry Henry show; I’m here to help the manager and the squad. The manager is the one who will do the talking, I will try to make the team better. As a coach you don’t have to mention what you have done as player in the past. And as a coach I haven’t proven anything,” he added.
The Belgium players, though, have been more than happy to talk about their relationship with him. Some have almost shown a childlike fandom for one of the greatest players of all time.
But they are also willing to learn – and none more so than Lukuku. The two share a special bond, perhaps because Lukuku is also a dedicated student of the game. He spends as much time analysing what happened as he does practising how to make it happen.
Sometimes, when Lukaku and Henry meet up during the Premier League season, the two will talk through how the Belgian can improve. In turn, the 25-year-old will sometimes reminisce with Henry over his heady Arsenal days. Probe, much like he does for space on the pitch, just how Titi became so good.
France, meanwhile, have a coach who has seen and won it all as a player. Deschamps was also part of the 1998 World Cup-winning side and has done a decent job at sorting out a French side that was in disarray when he took over.
We won’t ever know what Henry makes of it all, but it seems almost impossible that he won’t be feeling a tinge of nostalgia when La Marseillaise is belted out on Tuesday, with Deschamps just a few yards away from him.
It’s a shame that the journey for one of these two teams has to end on Tuesday. For a tournament that has given so much, it would have been a fitting final.
But needs must and even when the tournament suggests using data to try to predict outcomes is hardly foolproof, let’s crunch some numbers for those who cannot help themselves.
Previous meetings, head-to-head and other stats
France have won all three previous meetings at major tournaments, including two World Cup matches. But they’ve not met in a major international tournament since 1986.
Overall, Belgium hold the aces. They have 30 wins, while France have won 24 with 19 draws.
France play their sixth World Cup semi-final in Russia. They lost the first three, but won the last two – in 1998 when they became champions and in 2006 where they lost the final to Italy on penalties.
Les Bleus also have a solid record in knockout games at the World Cup. Their last defeat in a knockout game was in 2014, when they lost to Germany in the quarter-finals.
Belgium, meanwhile, have a bit of a reputation for bottling it at crunch time. They’ve only made it to a semi-final at a World Cup once before, back in 1986, when they lost to Argentina.
In the Euros, they also lost their only semi-final. But the Belgians are unbeaten in their last 24 games, with 19 wins and five draws. They are also on a seven-match winning streak, including that clutch comeback against Japan.
History, then, suggests that this win should belong to Les Bleus. Based on current form, the golden generation of Belgians could keep shining. DM