Dusseldorf, St. Petersburg 1.7 billion euros. On this total, the French sports newspaper “L’Equipe” estimates the market values of the likely starting players in the World Cup semi-final between France and Belgium. Kylian Mbappé is worth 400 million euros, Antoine Griezmann contributes 120 million euros, Pogba, Kanté and Varane each increase by 100 million euros.
For the Belgians, ex-Wolfsburg player Kevin De Bruyne is the measure of all things with 200 million euros, even if the potential replacements of Eden Hazard with 170 million and Romelu Lukaku with 150 million euros revolve in similar spheres. Nevertheless, according to the newspaper, the balance sheet is 1.04 billion to 695 million euros for the French.
It’s not a coincidence. France, like the Belgians, has produced a highly-rated generation of players. And with investor money, Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco have a say in international sit-downs. It is a little symptomatic of Belgium’s football. For years, the “Red Devils” have been considered co-favorites for big titles. And for years, Belgium has failed surprisingly early for all experts. Now it comes against France for the early World Cup final. Both teams have been the strongest in the tournament. France showed tactically superior football against Uruguay, knows how to use the individual class of its stars. Belgium have not only shown the most beautiful counter of the tournament, Kevin De Bruyne is currently regarded as the best playmaker in the world – he makes the beautiful game efficient. Commonality of the teams: They appear as a team.
It’s hard to find a favorite. The parties themselves know this. “They have great players, but we also know our qualities,” said France’s shooting star Benjamin Pavard of VfB Stuttgart. After Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne can’t scare the French either. “Against Belgium, there will be eleven terriers on the pitch,” said defensive colleague Lucas Hernandez ahead of Tuesday’s World Cup semi-final (8pm AEST/ARD and Sky) in St Petersburg. France coach Didier Deschamps promised: “We will do everything we can to seize this opportunity and get to the final.”
But everyone from the Tricolore also knows what the Red Devils are capable of. In the quarter-finals, they destroyed the title dreams of record world champion Brazil in impressive manner. “When you beat Brazil, you don’t have to fear anyone,” says offensive player Nacer Chadli: “For us, it’s the most important game of our lives. We are ready to fight.”
Thirty-two years ago, Belgium lost to Diego Maradona and eventual world champions Argentina in their only World Cup semi-final to date. In the match for third place there was also a defeat against the French. The Belgians say that this is not a déja vu. “In 1986 in Mexico, we were a golden generation. This is a brilliant one,” believes Belgium’s goalkeeper legend Jean-Marie Pfaff.
Russia’s 2-1 world cup quarter-final win over Neymar’s Brazilians has further boosted confidence in the Belgians’ own strength. “I don’t think there’s a big difference between Brazil and France,” said former Bundesliga pro Kevin De Bruyne.
But one thing is different: for the match against the French, he and his team-mates get the tips from none other than France’s record goalscorer Thierry Henry. The 40-year-old has been assistant coach of head coach Roberto Martinez since 2016. Henry won the first and so far only World Cup trophy for the Grande Nation at the Home World Championships 20 years ago.
The captain of the team was the current national coach Deschamps. ‘It’s bizarre because he’s French and he’s on the opponent’s bench. It must also be bizarre for him,” the 49-year-old said before the rendezvous in Russia. But it’s not just Deschamps and Henry who know each other well. As a boy, Varane played more often in tournaments in Belgium, he was born not far from the border in Lille.
France captain Hugo Lloris joins Tottenham Hotspur with Toby Alderweireld and Moussa Dembelé, midfielder Olivier Giroud at Chelsea with Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois and offensive genius Eden Hazard. “It’s going to be an unusual match,” Lloris predicted. “We know them well and they know us well.”
Belgium’s Hazard, on the other hand, was photographed as a young boy with his brothers Kylian and Thorgan by the sea – all in the jersey of the French national team with the number 10, then the number of France’s icon Zinédine Zidane. Eden Hazard also has great respect for the new generation of Frenchmen. It was “a closed team with exceptional players like Antoine Griezmann or Kylian Mbappé,” he praised.
Even if the two countries with 66 million inhabitants are unequal on the part of France and eleven million on the part of Belgium, the French also like to make fun of the language of their smaller neighbour, it will be a game on an equal footing. “50:50,” Giroud reckons of the odds. “The hardest thing is yet to come,” Mbappé says. “We haven’t achieved anything yet,” says Paul Pogba: “Our goal is not the semi-final.”
Belgium have never been in the World Cup final, the last time the French selection was in Germany in 2006. At that time, the team lost in the penalty shootout against Italy. In 2014, France lost to Germany in the quarter-finals, and in 2016 the team under Deschamps (in office since 2012) finished second at the European Championship in their own country. “We missed something extraordinary back then. Now we should do everything we can to seize this opportunity,” Deschamps said.
President Emmanuel Macron will not be able to take it upon himself to accompany the quipe tricolore on their penultimate stage on their tour of Russia. And no matter how the match goes, Macron wants to go into the cabin afterwards, said the head of the association, Noel Le Graét, in an interview with the newspaper “Le Figaro” (Monday). I’d love to celebrate the final – just like Belgium’s King Philippe on the other side. He, too, and his wife, Queen Mathilde, announced his coming.