For the Belgians, responding to a loss was never a worry. After rolling through the Group Stage with more ease than a cue ball across felt (3-0 over Panama, 5-2 over Tunisia, 1-0 over England), Belgium continued its pursuit in extraordinary fashion with a 3-2 come-from-behind win over Japan in the Round of 16. Faced with the odds-on favorite across the pitch in Brazil in the quarterfinals, the Belgium defense proved stout and withstood a second half barrage to secure the 2-1 victory.
France, time after time, has proven defense is the best offense and sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. After winning Group C with the benefit of some favorable own goals and penalty kicks on their side, the French embarked on one of the most difficult paths to the semis. With budding star 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé staring face-to-face with one of the world’s best in Lionel Messi and Argentina, “37” as his teammates call him, stood tall and established the ceremonial passing of the torch to the next generation as France held on for the 4-3 win. Fueled with confidence, France’s defense stood as strong as The Maginot Line, blanking Uruguay for a 2-0 advancement.
Seeking to fulfill the anomaly of having two members of the same Group square off in the finals, England has endured a journey that makes Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling chase seem like a stroll on the Venice Boardwalk. After suffering an inconsequential loss to Belgium in the final match of Group play, the Brits encountered a streaking Colombia team. Despite squandering a lead in stoppage time, England held on for the penalty kick victory. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Beckham debated the value of furniture and fish and chips, the Three Lions took care of business on the pitch against Sweden, 2-0.
If England faced challenges, Croatia faced impossibilities. All was well as three-straight convincing victories carried The Blazers into the Round of 16, but then the roller coaster seemed to slow. An eventful first four minutes saw both Croatia and Denmark find the back of the net, only to remain scoreless for the next 116 minutes. Trading saves in the cage, Croatia finally eked out the 3-2 penalty kick advantage courtesy of the foot of Ivan Rakitic. As 42,000+ took to Sochi to cheer for host nation Russia in the quarterfinals, Croatia was surely out-supported, but not outplayed. As 90 minutes proved not to be enough, Croatia struck first in extra time only to surrender the equalizer in the second session, forcing yet another penalty kick situation. Yet again, Rakitic remained stoic in his approach and advanced Croatia to its second-ever World Cup semifinal.
The World Cup continues Tuesday, July 10 as France squares off with Belgium before Croatia and England find their way to the pitch July 11.