Right then. With just four teams left in the competition, it’s time to get ahead of ourselves. Who do we want in the final, and why?
Obviously those of you with a supporter’s interest know exactly what you want: your team, playing an opponent that’s just come through a 120-minute semi-final, picked up loads of red cards, and suffered a handful of non-serious (but still inconvenient) injuries. For the rest of the world, this is a question of aesthetic preferences. Of appropriate endings.
But first, a caveat: these could all be wonderful games, and none of them look like nailed-on stinkers. So last place in this list isn’t strictly a losing position; it’s more like fourth winner. We’ll sort out some kind of wooden medal. It’ll look nothing like a spoon.
1. Belgium vs. Croatia
This, we reckon, would be the correct final for this tournament. Two teams that have never won the thing before. Two perennial dark horses, opening up in the home straight, stretching away from a tournament littered with the corpses of sacred cows. Don’t look at that metaphor too hard, or you’ll realise that (a) cows rarely race horses, and (b) if they did, they’d be expected to lose. Just enjoy the animal chat.
It could also be a really fun game of football. The World Cup final is an unusual game, in that it’s probably the game where interested neutrals most outweigh invested fans. FIFA reported that one billion people watched the 2014 final, and while FIFA’s proclamations should always be taken without salt, we can safely assume it was A Lot.
These people deserve entertainment. They deserve Luka Modric and Kevin de Bruyne. And they certainly deserve Bobby Martinez, international treasure. When we consider the ideal final, we are looking for a game that falls in the magic sweet spot: tense and close while at the same time being amusing, entertaining, and gripping. Belgium have already served up one of those games, against Brazil, and Croatia’s buttery-smooth midfield/slightly-weird everywhere-else seems like an ideal match.
2. France vs. England
But if we can’t have the upstarts, we might as well go for The Biggest Game Possible (With What We Have Left). Both these nations have one star twinkling brightly above their badge; both are currently thinking “You know, two is better than one. Like, twice as good.” And they’re not wrong.
From the point of view of the game, each poses the other an interesting question. England, all tidy possession-based conservatism and heavily-weaponised set pieces, aren’t quite like any of the teams France have run into so far. Be nice to see Kylian Mbappe face a real test in Harry Maguire.
On the England side of things, this campaign has been quite well-structured, in that they’ve dispelled most of the doubts that follow them to every major tournament. They’ve taken care of the group stage in relatively comfortable fashion; they’ve eased to a win in a knock-out game against a notional inferior; and, of course, they’ve won a penalty shootout. Now for the biggest question of them all. Can they beat a Proper Big Team?
Fun fact: the last time England beat/knocked out a previous World Cup winner in a major tournament was ... yes, you guessed it, 1966— actually, no, it was Argentina in 2002. Still a while ago, mind. Not sure what VAR would have made of Michael Owen’s collapse in the box.
Anyway, the only real downside to this fixture, apart from it not being Belgium vs. Croatia, is that the more incorrigible elements of the British press will get to spend a fevered few days desperately rehashing every single war, battle, skirmish, and argument that England* has had with France. And there’s been loads. Agincourt! Waterloo! The Saintonge War! It won’t be a hundred years’ war build-up, but it might start to feel like it.
* And the wider UK, since the other home nations are generally told to get in line and wave their Union Jacks whenever England do well.
3. Belgium vs. England
We’ve had this game already. BORING ...
... except we haven’t. World Cup 2018 has been very good to us, but the fact that we were denied a proper dust-up at the conclusion of Group G was a significant injustice. Nice one, Panama. Good work, Tunisia. You turned the climax of the group phase into a League Cup game. No wonder Adnan Januzaj looked good.
Anyway, here’s a chance to get this done properly. Harry Kane against Vincent Kompany. Eden Hazard against Kyle Walker. Marouane Fellaini against Marouane Fellaini. And, rather delightfully, two managers that have both been relegated from the top flight of English football, competing for the bestest trophy of the lot. Strange business, football.
Waistcoat against brown shoes. Let’s go.
4. France vs. Croatia
We’re not sure how this one might go, which is why we’ve plonked it down here in final place. It could be amazing: Modric and Ivan Rakitic going head to head with Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante in a midfield clash for the ages.
But it could also be a bit limp and one-sided. The worry is Croatia, who have looked by turns brilliant against a terrible Argentina, okay against an eliminated Iceland, knackered against a limited Denmark, and wobbly as all hell against a busy Russia. France are a significantly better team than all of the above, and that’s even without another close, potentially long game against England taken into account.
So: could be great, could be rubbish, could be disappointingly one-sided. Hence fourth.