In Summary
  • Soccer. England have beaten Panama, Tunisia, Colombia and Sweden but if you discount the dead rubber against Belgium, Croatia will be the first top class opponent for Gareth Southgate’s side
  • Croatia were semi-finalists in 1998 but this group is arguably a more talented than the lot of Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki that ran eventual winners France close in a 2-1 semis loss.

From one enthralling semi-final to another one, this is what the World Cup truly is all about.
When England play Croatia, it will be a showdown between a team that has surpassed expectations and a side that has lived up to its billing as dark horses of the competition.

Gareth Southgate’s young England were never favourites in most people’s books to contend for the title but the Three Lions have been superb on their way to the last four. They have scored for fun, been lethal at set plays and played cohesive football without really taking the breath away.
However, the lingering feeling among observers is that they have not beaten a top class side to reach this level.

Their only loss to a second string Belgium team was a dead rubber that had no bearing on their place in. The knockout stages.
Colombia, England’s second round victims, missed the services of James Rodriguez when they pushed Harry Kane and company to post-match penalties.
Croatia are the first major test England will be coming up against at the World Cup.

Although they have struggled to hit the heights of the groups where they collected 9 points against Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland, the shoot-out victories over Denmark and hosts Russia have shown the nerves of steel needed to progress at this level.

England are not famed for being great penalty takers, for all the excitement that followed after the win over Colombia, and memories of the 1990 World Cup semi-final defeat to West Germany hover over tonight’s contest. Croatia possess the better experience and quality but England are together with Belgium the deadliest teams at set plays.

English fans started descending on Moscow as early as Sunday and tickets for the match are in short supply with prices going as high as $2000.
Croatia were semi-finalists in 1998 but this group is arguably a more talented than the lot of Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki that ran eventual winners France close in a 2-1 semis loss.

England have the passion and momentum, but Croatia boast better experience and quality. Something has to give.

WORLD CUP TITBITS

Yandex to the rescue
Uber is the cheapest taxi for someone in a new land and their version in Russia is called Yandex. For a first timer, every thing can appear rocket science until you discover that it is simply an app like any. All you have to is to go to playstore, register and get sorted. From the time we learnt it, I and my friends stopped paying over the odds for routine distances especially those outside of the Metro operating times. The cars are always clean, prompt and driven by respectable individuals.

Train ride to St Petersburg
Yesterday, I did a train ride from Moscow to St Petersburg. It was a smooth 10-hr ride which I enjoyed in every sense, from admiring the countryside of Russia to the efficiency of the transport system and hospitality of the locals who were mostly headed to the Zenit Stadium for France vs Belgium. Dmitrii Kuznetsov, a Russian journalist, was particularly impressed with how much information I knew about his country and has since expressed interest in visiting Uganda. He admitted that most Russians know little about Africa and can’t wait to set foot in Uganda. Our nice conversation, a very lengthy one, was only brought to a halt by our arrival.

Passport nightmare
Shortly before I boarded my designated 2:50am train to St Petersburg, I was asked for my passport. I do not move around with my passport on my travels as a matter of principle. Being a FIFA Accredited journalist with my badge around my neck at all times, I was sure that that would be enough identity. But the train officials didn’t want anything other than my passport. I had to rush back to my apartment to pick my passport and by the time I returned, there was only one train left travelling to St Petersburg. Even then, getting a place on it was a problem because it was full. It was by the grace of God that I boarded the plane as the last passenger. I nearly missed France vs Belgium last night.

Argentines everywhere
For a team that was knocked out in the second round, you would expect all Argentine’s to be in Buenos Aires by now. Yet nearly everywhere you look, you see the white and blue of the football-mad South American country. It is clear that they had bought tickets to go all the way to the FIFA World Cup final. After all this is a country with the world’s best footballer and were losing finalists at the last World Cup. But they do love football and despite Lionel Messi and company being at the beach with their families, a good number of Argentina fans have remained to watch Sunday’s final.

*The writer is Monitor Publications Sports Editor