They came from every continent, but the two semifinals will see four European countries fight for bragging rights and more importantly a place in Sunday’s World Cup final.
First up is France and Belgium. The European neighbors meet in St. Petersburg to decide who will meet either England or Croatia in the final.
Tuesday’s game has an added twist of intrigue in that the French and Belgian players know each other so well. French midfielder N’golo Kante will have the task of subduing Chelsea teammate Eden Hazard, who is one of the creative forces in the Belgium team.
At set pieces, French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who plays for Spurs, will be wary of the aerial threat posed by club teammates and Belgium defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
Manchester United teammates Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku will also be on opposing sides on Tuesday. Pogba has looked impressive alongside Kante in France’s midfield, while Lukaku has scored four goals in the tournament.
“We know them, they know us,” France coach Didier Deschamps, who was a key part of the French team that won the World Cup in 1998, told reporters in a pre-match media conference.
“The peculiarity is that there are many players on my team who have club teammates facing them. It’s an advantage to both teams.
“During the match everyone will be on their own side, and we will do everything to seize any opportunity to reach the final of the World Cup.”
Friend or foe?
Thierry Henry was also part of that victorious France squad in 1998. Now he is an assistant to Belgium coach Roberto Martinez and the two of them will be plotting how to get the better of France tactically.
Former French captain Henry scored 51 goals in 123 international appearances, also winning the European championship title in 2000, playing alongside Deschamps.
“It is true it is a little peculiar to see him with the Belgium team,” said Lloris.
“I think his heart will be split, because before everything he is French. He has lived through great moments in the blue jersey. He scored the most goals, is second in terms of number of caps.
“We know him, he has a lot of passion for football and he will be with the Belgians and will give everything to help his team.”
Tuesday will be the first time Belgium has contested a World Cup semifinal in 32 years.
Both teams have overcome difficult South American opposition to reach the last four. France beat Argentina 4-3 in the last-16 round thanks to Kylian Mbappe’s virtuoso display, while Belgium impressed in a 2-1 win over Brazil in the quarterfinals.
“The crowd deserves a great spectacle,” Belgium midfielder Nacer Chadli told FIFA.com ahead of Tuesday’s semi.
“If we could beat Brazil, we shouldn’t fear anyone, even though the French have such a complete team.
“All the players think that our manager is a step ahead tactically, and I think that our hunger for victory will be greater than theirs.”