By JOHN DOYLE
Monday, July 9, 2018
TORONTO -- Look at these guys. The final four at this World Cup are Croatia, Belgium, France and, God Save the Queen, England. Stating the obvious, it's like the set-up for a Euro tournament semi-finals.
But before you go chuntering about the final four signifying the superiority of European soccer, hold that thought. Germany went out in the first round. Spain in the second round. Italy didn't even qualify and neither did the Netherlands. Superiority claims are specious.
What's happening here is not the triumph of Europe, but of European-style teamwork.
There is such irony there if you want to extrapolate larger themes. The European Union is premised on the idea of, obviously, the greater good of unity. That union is asunder now, thanks to Brexit and other strains.
Yet each team entering the semi-finals operates as a unit, with a fluid group effort transcending the importance of individual stars. Take Eden Hazard of Belgium. Any club team would take him, given the opportunity, because he has superstar qualities, but he's doing way more than simply starring in Belgium's games.
After Belgium beat Brazil, the front-page headline in Belgian newspaper De Standaard was "Devils beat God." Belgians call their team The Red Devils, and the point was that these devils had beaten the gods of international soccer, the country always expected to win the World Cup, having done that five times already. This time, what defeated Brazil was a devilish team effort, one epitomized by Hazard's performance. Hazard did his utmost to take his side through the game to the final second. He was not preening, and primed just to score goals himself. He tracked back, defended ably and, in the dying minutes, took the ball wherever it had it be in order to kill off the game. A team player, this star. Has anyone ever seen Neymar do what Hazard did? Exhibit the same positivity and get on with the task? Nope.
If Belgium is the new Brazil in this unfamiliar paradigm of World Cup power rankings, then Croatia is the new Argentina. Croatia, like the former Yugoslavia before it, has made a fetish of the 4-2-3-1 formation that relies on a central attacking midfielder. The number 10. This has long been Argentina's obsession and, in Luka Modric, Croatia has the perfect 10 - the player who pulls the strings in midfield, haunting the centre circle and going on attacking runs when the space opens up. He is the "trequartista" Argentina dreams of - the player who conducts the orchestra from the middle. And an orchestra is what Croatia is, a group, not a gaggle of superstar strikers waiting for the ball.
France might be the exception that proves the rule. There is a lot of free-flowing razzledazzle in France's play. And there is a ton of talk about Kylian Mbappé, merely 19 years old, being the new Pele or the new Thierry Henry or some other fanciful comparison. Yet Mbappé has only dazzled when he has been released as a part of a group effort. The team relies heavily on unity, in particular the partnership of Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti as centre backs. It's a defensively sound team that permits Mbappé to race forward with his rapid pace and dribbling skills.
Perhaps manager Didier Deschamps's greatest achievement is moulding a youthful France side into a tight unit. For years, France has been a team plagued by internal feuds and diva behaviour. As for Mbappé being the superstar, hold that thought and remember it is only two years since the same was said about Paul Pogba, and even Pogba has been corralled into team work with this French side.
England, as the whole world reading the English-language coverage knows, is very much a unit. Honestly, a team in which hardworking journeyman Harry Maguire sometimes stands out, is not a team relying on elite individuals. And the players know that, too. In a news conference leading up to the quarter-final match against Sweden, Harry Kane made some apt comments about the opposition. "People will say we have better individuals and play for bigger clubs, but in tournament football that doesn't matter," he said. "The best thing about them [Sweden] is that they stick together on the pitch." The same applies to the team he captains.
There is a natural tendency to see the World Cup, especially in its final stage, as a sort of red carpet on which glamorous individuals appear and are worshipped. This World Cup isn't that, at all. Cristiano Ronaldo has long gone, and Lionel Messi, too.
Keep in mind the last Euro tournament, which this World Cup now resembles. Portugal met France in the final. The attention was focused on Ronaldo. Then Ronaldo went off injured after mere minutes. This allowed Portugal to operate as a demigod-free collective, and win. It's the unit that matters now in what is a European Union finale.
Belgian superstar Eden Hazard, left, competes with Brazil's Fagner during their quarter-final match in Kazan, Russia, on Friday.