And then there were four.
It was over in a blink of an eye, it felt. The quarter-finals almost demanded a bigger stage, more time to reflect, more time to gawp and gape at the quality on offer, and to revel in the drama of – well – three amazing games and one completely professional, workmanlike performance.
If ever there was a case for not developing a narrative in advance, the Russian team provided the evidence. Not just the team, in fact, but the country as hosts. A veteran BBC radio commentator, Alan Green, refused to travel to Russia because of what he had seen on previous visits there, and there were all those alarm stories about Cossacks patrolling the streets and what might happen to LGBT fans. But all reports paint a picture of an incredible welcome extended to all who came, and let’s not forget that England fans have some history with their Russian counterparts, and there’s the current state of tension over novichok. And yet it has all been sunshine and smiles in Russia.
As for the national team, little was expected of them, and I was one of those who saw their automatic qualification as hosts as likely to unbalance one part of the draw, and then felt certain they would get dumped out (assuming they got out of their group) by Spain or Portugal. Well, they confounded all those expectations, and in Denis Cheryshev supplied a one-man Goal of the Tournament machine. His strike against Croatia in the quarter-finals was a thing of beauty, but that’s it for Russia now… undone by the coin toss that is a penalty shoot-out. I can’t say I would sooner have seen them rather than Croatia in the semis, especially since the guys in the checker-board shirts have gone massively off the boil since the knock-out stages began, but they have been fun while it lasted.
In the top half of the draw, France continued on their way with a tense, fraught game against Uruguay, which confirmed that les bleus will have earned their prize if they lift the cup, courtesy of the quality of the teams they have dispatched. If Brazil had conquered Belgium, France would have been set up to bounce a third South American team from the 2018 World Cup. As it was, Belgium did the job for them in the pick of the ties. Woe betide any French-speakers planning a vacation to Rio or Montevideo any time soon.
Belgium vs Brazil was an amazing game, one of those destined to be remembered for… days, at least up to whatever happens in the semis. Belgium seem to have it all, and are peaking perfectly. France vs Belgium could be a classic, notwithstanding my fears that semi-finals are often too tense to be fantastic matches. Let’s hope I am wrong again.
And, I hear, things are getting a little… excitable in England. Football may not yet be Coming Home, but it has consulted an airline schedule and booked time off work. If nothing else, England, along with the other three semi-finalists, get to stay in Russia until the end now, because the losing semi-finalists will be thrilled to participate in the 3rd/4th place play-off a couple of days after missing out on the Big One. Technically, I suppose five teams get to hang around, since Russia are already home, but that’s just quibbling. That was a perfectly solid performance to remove Sweden, even if it never hit the heights as a game. If very little England football would make a highlights reel, no-one is going to know or care if they have two more wins in the tank.
Of course, the more we ratchet up the play count on “Three Lions”, ensuring that David Baddiel becomes richer than Bill Gates, the more we have to be ready for either outcome come Wednesday. Can you walk the tightrope of ensuring your social media coverage isn’t too Eng-er-land! without looking like you are one of the only six people in the country unaware of what’s going on? Will your writers and moderators be ready to switch gear if the unthinkable happens? Will they even come to work? If viewing figures for the last two games are anything to go by, good luck finding a train, bus, hospital bed or policeman for two hours on Wednesday. The M1 is already planned to be closed for a street party, and that’s just if England beats Croatia.
We’re past pretending that you can run a social media campaign without getting caught up in the hype by now. Your grocery brand ought to be campaigning for Gareth Southgate to be knighted, sainted or both, or at least given free vegetables for the next ten years - see the phenomenen that is #GarethSouthgateWould...
Will Harry Kane win the golden boot? Will your next door neighbour’s footie mad kid, Jordan Pickford be named ‘keeper of the tournament? Will Thingy who plays for Wotsisname be the guy you always said would come good?
See you Thursday.