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Sunday, July 8, 2018
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The semifinals are set, and there are plenty of reasons to get behind any of the four teams still competing to be World Cup champion.

  • Russia's late exit after a long run
  • In praise of the penalty-kick shootout
  • How England views itself
  • #WorldCupS: midweek semifinal drinking
Croatia fans in Zagreb on Saturday.
Russia and Croatia, the quarterfinal matchup everyone dumped on, turned out to be the best match of the bottom half of the World Cup bracket.

Croatia knocked out the host in a penalty shootout. Watch the highlights.

The pairing didn't include a former World Cup winner, like the other quarterfinals, not that ancient titles and stale pedigree make a difference. And the host team's soccer ability had been summarily discounted since before its opening-match drubbing of Saudi Arabia; surely a World Cup campaign can't run just on adrenaline and patriotic fervor.

Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov, with the encouragement of President Vladimir Putin, seemed to do just that, posing as a diffident curmudgeon for the news media as he kept his players relaxed and focused on their longer-than-expected run.

The Russian team's success added to Putin's political and diplomatic victory of hosting a positive, exciting World Cup, and it emboldened Russian fans.

Neutrals were doubtful. There were plenty of conspiracy theories left over from Russia's round of 16 victory against Spain. Suspicion carried over into the quarterfinal, as every strange occurrence — Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subašić's injured hamstring when the team was out of subs strangest among them — lit up Twitter with new speculation

I love the banter about how Putin might have manipulated the World Cup, but I worry it lets Spain off the hook for its failure and detracts from Croatia's well-earned accomplishment.

Croatia deserves your support. Of all the European teams I heard neutrals get behind — Iceland, Belgium, Switzerland — Croatia never seemed to win anyone over. 

Why not? The Croatians press the attack with fullbacks ready and eager to get forward. Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida are dominant centerbacks. The midfield, led by Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić, is dynamic and skillful. Mario Mandžukić and Ante Rebić are smart and instinctual strikers.

If your team is out, and you're looking for a semifinalist to support, Croatia is worthy. It's never won a World Cup before; the country has only been competing since 1998, the last time it made the semifinals. It would be cool to see a new winner.

Belgium too would be a first-time winner. That's the team my son, Miles, is supporting after his favorite, Brazil, was eliminated.

Miles didn't even balk. He said he figures if Belgium is good enough to beat Brazil, the team deserves of his enthusiasm. He also likes that Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini of Manchester United are Belgian. 

France has been increasingly impressive as the tournament has progressed, and Les Bleus are making me feel smart for picking them to win from the start. Kylian Mbappé's rise has been fun to watch, and it was neat to see Benjamin Pavard break out. 

His contributions reminded me a little bit of the way Lillian Thuram, another French fullback, catapulted France in 1998. Maybe it's that they're both fullbacks; Thuram's performance was even more spectacular. After losing his mark and costing France an early goal in the World Cup semifinal, Thuram scored both goals in France's 2-1 win over Croatia 20 years ago. They were the only two goals Thuram ever scored for France.

England has been more interesting than exciting, though it's been that too. The team beat Sweden 2-0 (watch highlights) to perpetuate the "It's coming home" meme at least until Wednesday.

I'm not an England fan but I am now a believer. These players and this coach deserve more of a chance than the British media and fans have given their predecessors.

Read how Gareth Southgate, the England coach, humbly shared credit, handed out praise freely and even gave the impression that he and his team are enjoying themselves. Credit Southgate for doing something else truly remarkable for an England coach: being a human being

More on England below, from Musa Okwonga, and in my semifinal preview headed for your inbox Tuesday morning. 

The Banter will take a break until then and resume before the semifinals with everything you need to be smart about France-Belgium and England-Croatia.
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RUN OF PLAY | Great reads and more

England's Gareth Southgate.
The World Cup version of England
There have been innumerably more think pieces written about England this week than the national team has scored goals in the run of play. I linked to David Goldblatt's take on "modern England" the other day. But Musa Okwonga, the British writer, poet and soccer fanatic, corrected the record. "I think there are several modern Englands," he wrote in his New York Times op-ed email newsletter, listing several competing versions. Some are places you'd want to live. Others retrograde. "I want Southgate’s England to win," Okwonga wrote. "That’s the one I’m cheering for."

Read more about the modern Englands.

In praise of the penalty-kick shootout
The worst way to end a tie, except for all the others. That's what I said after the round of 16. To be fair, I offer the counterargument from my friend John Doyle, soccer fan and TV critic for Toronto's Globe and Mail. Doyle calls it "soccer distilled," and explains how "there is no room for mental frailty in the penalty shootout, for the ’keeper or the kicker. It is brutal inescapable reality."

Read more from Doyle defending — no, celebrating — the shootout.

Soccer's secret superstar
It's not entirely clear why he's so good at it, but Harry Kane scores goals. His six so far for England at the World Cup is the tournament best, even if half of them came from the penalty spot. He doesn't look like Cristiano Ronaldo and he doesn't play like Lionel Messi, but Kane is regarded as one of the most potent strikers in the game, and has led England to the semifinal. 

Read more about Kane's mastery of the "invisible elements" of soccer.

The World Cup is no place for impulse purchases
Among the thousands of World Cup fans in Russia, you'll find lots of soccer experts, but few if any top scouts for the world's biggest clubs. “If you are waiting for the World Cup to make decisions, you’re not doing your work well enough,” one Premier League scout to Rory Smith of The New York Times. Gone are the days of unearthing an undiscovered talent at soccer's quadrennial showcase.

Read more from Smith in The Times.

Russia paving the way for China
The way President Vladimir Putin has used the World Cup to soften the nerve agent-tinged sharp edges of Russia's international reputation may be a model for China's Xi Jinping. The Chinese president is an avowed soccer fan, and since taking office in 2013 he's sought to improve the country's geopolitical and soccer standing. 

Read more from Foreign Policy.
 

#WorldCupS: What have you been drinking? 

Our semifinal bracket is set: Ruinart blanc de blanc Champagne for France and Chimay Blue for Belgium. On the other side, it's Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter for England poured against Croatia's Slivovitz.

We've been drinking well the past month, and a lot. Beer, wine and spirits (and N/A bevies from Saudi Arabia and Iran). 

What have you enjoyed most? Share your favorite #WorldCupS beverages with @jeffdmarcus, @tammykennon and @ChipSellarole.

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The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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