The first of two all-European semifinals at the 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off on Tuesday morning as Belgium’s “golden generation” meets France for a spot in the largest soccer match on the planet.
This is one step further than both sides took at the previous World Cup in 2014. In Brazil, Belgium lost to Lionel Messi and Argentina in the quarterfinals while France bowed out to Germany at the same stage.
In what is considered to be the best team Belgium has ever fielded with premier talents like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelo Lukaku, the Red Devils are playing in their second-ever semifinal at a World Cup. The first came in 1986 when they lost to eventual champions Argentina.
Belgium has already beaten some notable world powers during its journey to the last four. A 2-1 win over Brazil in the quarterfinals was almost pedestrian compared to the thrilling 3-2 victory over Japan in the Round of 16 when it came back from two goals down in the second half. A 1-0 victory over fellow semifinalists England secured Group G for the Belgians.
The Red Devils are paced by the attacking brilliance of Eden Hazard, who spearheads Belgium’s attack thanks to his ability to create space out of nothing and hold possession better than almost any player in the world.
While he has two goals at this year’s tournament, his and De Bruyne’s distribution abilities have put Lukaku in the conversation for the World Cup’s Golden Boot. The striker is tied for second with four goals behind England’s Harry Kane.
Some of the credit for Lukaku’s efficiency in front of goal in Russia could be attributed to assistant coach Thierry Henry, who was one of the most prolific strikers in the world during his time on the pitch from 1994-2012.
But the 40-year-old coach will have split allegiances come Tuesday as he applied his trade as a player with his home nation of France. Henry is the country’s all-time leading goal scorer with 51 tallies while helping his home nation lift the 1998 World Cup and make another final in 2006.
“He is a huge player and a great gentleman of French football,” France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said on Monday. “It is a bit peculiar to see him with the Belgium team but that is his career and that is how he is learning his future career. I think his heart will be split tomorrow because, before anything, he remains French.”
France has only that 1998 title in its World Cup trophy case. Since then, it’s been a rocky and inconsistent ride for Les Bleus. In the previous four tournaments, France crashed out of the group stage in 2002 and 2010 before heartbreak in the 2006 final against Italy and 2014 quarterfinals.
But Didier Deschamps’ fresh, new-look side has provided a resurgence in French soccer as this squad is the youngest remaining group in the tournament with an average age of 26.
The poster child for the youth movement has been 19-year-old striker Kylian Mbappe, who had a coming out party of sorts against Argentina after recording two goals and setting up a third by drawing a penalty in a 4-3 victory.
Both he and Antoine Griezmann have three goals in Russia, providing 75-percent of France’s goals this tournament. Benjamin Pavard and Raphael Varane are the only other Frenchmen with goals at the World Cup this year.
That victory over Messi and Co. was the first legitimate sign that France could be a real threat at the World Cup. Les Bleus looked less than convincing in the Group Stage with narrow, one-goal victories over Australia and Peru before a goalless draw against Denmark.
Now it faces a Belgium side for a third time at the World Cup. If history suggests anything though, France is in good shape as it came away with wins in the 1938 group stage and 1986 in the third-place game.
Here is how you can catch all the action:
France v. Belgium viewing information
Date: Tuesday, Jul. 10
Time: 2 PM ET