Bye-bye Russia…until 2026 or later
The World Cup is taking a two-day breather before the semifinals Tuesday (France-Belgium at St. Petersburg) and Wednesday (Croatia-England at Moscow). For South America, it’s on to Qatar 2022. Uruguay and Brazil, the continent’s final two remaining nations, were knocked out Friday. Uruguay was no match for France, falling 2-0, while Brazil fell behind by two goals to Belgium and could not make up the difference, with the European side prevailing 2-1. Yesterday, England went to halftime with Sweden scoreless, but dominated the second half and won 2-0 to advance to the semifinals for the first time since 1990. The Croatia-Russia match produced plenty of drama. Russia led 1-0 at halftime. Croatia came back to level the score in the second half, and the tally remained that way at full time, forcing 30 minutes of extra time.Croatia took the lead in the first 15-minute extra time period, meaning Russia would have to score in the second 15-minute period or else. Indeed, Russia did score six minutes from the death. Off to kicks from the penalty mark, the method which both nations used to win their round of 16 ties. Croatia prevailed 4-3, and truthfully, it was best for the game that Croatia won. It will make for a stronger tie vs. England. Russia would not have been in the World Cup had it not gained automatic entry for being the host nation. It was ranked 65th in the world by FIFA when the draw for the World Cup groups was held last December, and had slipped to 70th by June 7, the date of the last rankings prior to the World Cup starting a week later. Russia is going to feel good about its football program after this World Cup, but it should not get cocky. Russia beat two equally bad sides, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and was thoroughly dominated by Uruguay in its final group match. It did not win a match in the knockout stage, because draws after 120 minutes officially go down in the record books as draws, with kicks from the penalty mark only used to determine which team advances in the tournament, not for won-loss purposes. I am not a betting man. If I was, I would certainly predict Russia will not be playing in Qatar in four years. Italy and the Netherlands will do all they can to make sure they don’t miss consecutive World Cups. I can never see Belgium, Croatia, France, Germany, England, Spain and Portugal not making it. I like the chances for Denmark and Switzerland to make it to Qatar, and I would have to rank Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Austria, Slovakia, Ireland and Turkey ahead of Russia. That’s 19 countries ahead of Russia. There will be 13 places for UEFA teams in the 2022 World Cup (16 when the field expands to 48 teams in 2026). Therefore, I would not expect Russia to be playing again in a World Cup until 2026, maybe later. I had Brazil vs. Croatia in the World Cup final. One half of that prediction can still come true, and I am going to stick with that. The former Yugoslavian division will be playing in Moscow a week from today for the grandest prize in team sports.On the other side of the bracket, I’m tempted to pick Belgium since it ousted Brazil, but France has looked mighty fine to date. Boy, that should be one heck of a match. I didn’t have either side going past the quarterfinals, but now one will play for the title. I think Belgium is spent after beating Brazil. France hasn’t had to exert nearly as much energy. I’ll go with Les Bleus to make the final for the first time since it won it all at home in 1998.