Slab Head, Rocky and 37 headline unlikely World Cup final 4
MOSCOW — English fish and chips against Croatia's famous fish risotto. France's vin et fromage versus Belgian beer and waffles.
Players nicknamed Slab Head, Rocky and 37.
Welcome to the final four of a new-look World Cup, perhaps the most improbable of soccer's 21 championships.
Host Russia left in tears Saturday night, jilted like a suitor at the end of a Pushkin poem when it tied Croatia late in extra time only to lose the last quarterfinal on penalty kicks.
Germany's Teutonic efficiency departed earlier, along with Brazil's yellow-shirted samba style and Spain's tiki-taka pass-a-thon.
Lionel Messi's Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal couldn't get past the round of 16. Italy's Azzurri didn't even earn an invite.
"Whoever was the favorites to win, the big teams, are home," Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said through a translator. "Those who are hard-working, who are compact, who are united and who are well-organized, they are here in Russia, and this is the character of the four teams remaining in the tournament."
Celebrer la nouvelle.
First up Les Bleus vs. De Rode Duivels on Tuesday night in St. Petersburg, a matchup of Western European neighbors.
Then The Three Lions vs. Vatreni the following night in Moscow.
Is football coming home or is the title going somewhere new?
"We're in a World Cup semifinal. Whether we're in the top four in the world is something we would still have to prove," England manager Gareth Southgate said. "It will be a sign to all clubs that, whether it's in England or abroad, that English players can play, that we've got players with super technique."
By the long-maligned FIFA rankings, these matchups are unlikely.
Belgium is ranked third in the world, France seventh, England 12th and Croatia 20th.
France routed Belgium 5-0 at Nantes in the group stage of the 1984 European Championship as Michel Platini scored a hat trick, then won 4-2 in the third-place game of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico after Belgium lost its semifinal 2-0 to Argentina, which got a pair of goals from Diego Maradona. Generations earlier, Emile Veinante scored in the first minute of France's 3-1 win in Paris in the round of 16 at the 1938 World Cup.
Since winning its only title at Wembley in 1966, England had reached the World Cup semifinals just once, losing to West Germany on penalty kicks at Italia 1990. France lost semifinals in 1958 and 1982, won its only World Cup at home in 1998, then lost the 2006 final — sacre bleu! — to Italy in the infamous Zinedine Zidane head-butt game.
Croatia fell to France in the 1998 semifinals in its first appearance as an independent nation after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. It is known mostly for its red-and-white checkerboard jersey — its alternate nickname is Kockasti — The Checkered Ones. Midfielder Ivan Perisic took the nickname to an extreme — at least in taste — when he showed up for a round-of-16 match against Portugal at the 2016 European Championship in a haircut that matched the shirt .
England's team includes a colorful nickname. Jamie Vardy dubbed national team and Leicester teammate Harry Maguire Slab Head during training camp and punked him during an interview. Vardy joined reporters and asked the final question. "It's Jamie Vardy from the Vardy Express. How big is the diameter of your head?"
When Maguire scored the go-ahead goal in Saturday's 2-0 win over Sweden, his shout of joy was so intense it looked like a shriek of pain.
Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku earned the Rocky nickname at Manchester United, where teammates compared his work ethic to that of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa.
Kylian Mbappe, the 19-year-old French forward sensation, was nicknamed 37 by teammates after they said he reached 37 kph (23 mph) during a sprint against Portugal — FIFA clocked it at a slightly more leisurely 32.4 kph (20.1 mph).
No matter which team wins, the final four is a triumph of the Big Five — Europe's top professional leagues. Eighty-one of 92 players on semifinal rosters are with clubs in England (40), Spain (12), France (12), Germany (nine) and Italy (eight).
All of England's players are home based, with 22 in the Premier League and one in the second-tier League Championship. They face many of the world's best each week.
"The reason that foreign players play in the Premiership is because we pay the most money, so that is very straightforward," Southgate said.
France has nine from its Ligue 1, six from La Liga, five from the Premier League, two from the Bundesliga and one from Serie A.
Nearly half of Belgium's roster — 11 — was in the Premier League season, joined by three from Germany, two apiece from France, Spain and China, and one each in France, Italy and Scotland. Defender Leander Dendoncker in the lone player to stay at home, with Anderlecht.
Croatia has six in Serie A, four each in La Liga and the Bundesliga, and one apiece in England, France, Austria, Belgium, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. The only two from home are midfielder Filip Bradaric, whose sole appearance was as a second-half substitute in the group phase, and backup goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
Dalic hopes in a year of the outsider, the least-heralded team prevails.
"We don't want to stop. We will try to play our best game," he said. "I trust us."