- Presidential grace
Having seen off Uruguay in the last eight, France’s euphoric band of brothers emerged from the fun and frolicking in the showers and ice baths to discover that their travails were to be rewarded with a visitation. Monsieur le Président was going to be at the semi-final in St Petersburg. Laurent Blanc – so nicknamed because of his imperious calm as a libero in the 1998 World Cup winning team – would be always welcome to cast an eye over the current crop especially since he was a teammate of France coach Didier Deschamps who skippered France to glory. But no, not that president. But the actual elected one - Emmanuel Macron. "Well done to our boys in blue. See you on Tuesday!" Le Macron tweeted after the game. There’ll be no such bonhomie from English politicians. They’re remaining stiff of upper lip and clenched of buttock, preferring not to succumb to the football laxative running through the people. They are boycotting the tournament after blaming the Russian government for the attempted poisoning with a nerve agent of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in England in March. The Kremlin says it wasn’t behind the attack. Other nations are not exhibiting such resolve. Belgium's King Philippe took his two sons to Russia to watch the Belgium v Tunisia game in the group stages. Spain's King Felipe VI jetted over to Moscow to see what was supposed to be Spain’s last 16 romp against Russia. A poisoned chalice, that one.
- The omen
Head-spinning times these for French football. Having eclipsed lacklustre Lionel and his Argentina boys in the last 16, France chewed up Luis Suarez’s Uruguayan crew in the last eight to reach the semis. Each time France has reached the semi-final of the World Cup, it has progressed to the final. In 1998, it was at the expense of Croatia and in 2006, Portugal. Belgium are next up after they beat Brazil. Belgium’s last appearance in the semis came in 1986. Only defender Vincent Kompany was alive then and he was just a gurgling tot. The Belgians lost 2-0 to eventual winners Argentina. Time for some ghosts to exorcised.
A brilliant if slightly mystifying Lars von Trier film that one. And at times during their quarter-final against Belgium, Brazil appeared to be dancing in the dark – yes, really. They couldn’t find a way past Vincent Kompany and his mean cohorts in the rearguard. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois pulled off some fine saves too. It was the fourth successive World Cup that Brazil's involvement in the tournament was ended by a European side. Four years ago it was a humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semi-finals. In 2010, it was the Netherlands in the quarters and in 2006 it was France. Europa curse continues.
- Own goals
Pity poor Fernando Muslera. The Uruguay goalkeeper’s blunder in the 60th minute effectively killed off his side’s chances against France in the last eight in Nizhny Novgorod. There was accuracy about Antoine Griezmann’s thrash from 25 metres. But not too much menace. Muslera moved to cover it but somehow contrived to push the ball up and over his head and into the net. Thus he can join the Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius who had very public disfunctions during the Uefa Champions League final in May. It’s a tough job being a keeper especially when your counterpart – Hugo Lloris – is soaking up the acclaim for a fine one-handed parry just before half-time.
Much was made by the Mexicans of their curse of the last 16. They hadn’t gone past that stage of the competition for six World Cups on the trot. Despite their coach Juan Carlos Osorio refusing to get mired in the metaphysical murkiness, Mexico went out in the last 16. A chronicle of a death foretold, perhaps. And now onto South Americans away from their own continent. Not much success. And it will continue for a while longer with the 2022 competition in Qatar and 2026 attributed to the United States, Mexico and Canada. With the elimination of Uruguay and Brazil on day 23, there are no more South American teams in the competition. Of the six tournaments held in Europe since 1966, there hasn’t been a winner from South America. Brazil managed to win in 1958 in Sweden but that was the first and only time. So the South Americans know what to do.