Croatia and Morocco are the surprise guests in the World Cup’s final four but, as the Croatians discovered in 2018 and many other long-shot semi-finalists have before them, the two remaining steps to become world champions can be the steepest.
In the 21 editions of the World Cup over 92 years featuring 79 nations, there have still been only eight winners and only 13 have made it to the final. Spain were the last to join the elite group of champions in 2010 after France in 1998 and Argentina in 1978.
Since then there have been a sprinkling of “outsiders” who made it to the last four, with almost all of them failing to go any further.
Poland and Belgium lost to eventual winners Italy and Argentina respectively in 1982 and 1986 and while as former winners England would not like to be included in the “long-shots” group, it was still a surprise when they made the semis in 1990, where they lost to West Germany.
It was in 1994 though that the apple cart really looked to have been overturned. Bulgaria arrived in the United States having never won a World Cup match in 16 attempts and duly chalked up an 11th defeat in their first game.
They then turned things around, winning two group games, beating Mexico on penalties in the last 16 and then memorably stunning holders Germany in the quarter-finals.
On the other side of the draw, Sweden arrived after a last-16 shootout win over Romania.
Normal service was resumed in the semis though as Italy ended Bulgaria’s dream run and Brazil edged out Sweden.
Bulgaria, with their Hristo Stoichkov-inspired golden generation ageing, went out in the group stage with one point four years later and have not qualified for the finals since.
Yugoslavia made the semis in 1930 and 1962 but after the country broke up, Croatia appeared as an independent nation for the first time in 1998.
The highlight of their emotional run to the last four was a superb 3-0 quarter-final victory over Germany, before they were eventually beaten 2-1 by hosts France in the semis.
The 2002 tournament was another where two total outsiders made the last four but were eventually stopped in their tracks by tournament juggernauts.
Joint-hosts South Korea grew in confidence after topping their group and then stunned the world by beating Italy in the last 16 with an extra-time golden goal and then Spain on penalties to become the first Asian team to make the semis.
A quarter-final between Senegal and Turkey meant another new semi-finalist was guaranteed, and it was Turkey who progressed.
Germany and Brazil then pulled rank, beating Korea and Turkey respectively, though both only 1-0. It had been only Turkey’s second appearance in the World Cup and they have not been back since.
Portugal reached their second semi in 2006, losing to France while four years later the historically “surprise” semi-finalists were Spain, who had never previously made it (though they were in the second group stage in 1950) and twice-champions Uruguay, who last did in 1970.
Spain, though, arrived in South Africa as European champions and it was hardly an upset as they finally shook off decades of World Cup failure to beat the Netherlands in the final.
Croatia made it to the semis in 2018 and went one better than 20 years earlier by beating England, only to lose to France in the final.
They are back this year, up against Argentina, but it is Morocco flying the flag for the true underdogs as they are the first African team to make the last four and have done it in style by dispatching European heavyweights Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
France and Argentina, each seeking a third title, will be favourites to end the fairy-tale runs but neutrals everywhere will surely be willing the outsiders on in the hope of producing the ninth world champion.
Gary Neville on the 2022 semi-finalists…
Argentina vs Croatia – Tuesday, Kick Off 7pm
“Argentina are a bit barbaric in their approach and some of their behaviour was disgraceful. During my career, I used to sometimes go and celebrate in front of fans but at the end of the game, I would always go and shake the opposition’s hand. You’re always respectful but I thought they went over the top.
“They have a spirit here with their fans, a nastiness and there’s a feeling that they have it in them. The Argentinian defenders have always had it in them to be nasty and to fight. Gabriel Heinze used to always warm up with an Argentina top underneath his United shirt.
“They feel it for their country like you wouldn’t believe. There’s a hurt inside them and they’ve brought it to this tournament even on the bench. They’ve got this beauty amongst the beast in Lionel Messi, who delivers these spectacular moments of brilliance.
“Combined with the tenacity and horribleness of some of their play and defending, it looks like it could be a winning combination.
“Croatia will dominate the midfield as they’re better than Argentina in that area. It’s just whether or not they have the killer instinct up front. I have a feeling they could dominate large parts of the game. They have a midfield that dominates the ball and who know how to play with each other.
“Ian Wright said to me around 10 days ago that he felt Croatia could win it and I thought never. I felt they weren’t anywhere near as good as they were four years ago, and here we are.
“Can they beat Argentina? Yes, they can. Luka Modric is a star. He was a fantastic player at Tottenham but what he’s gone on to achieve at Real Madrid is unbelievable. He dominates extra time and every pass he makes is beautiful. There’s perfection even in the way he plays the simple pass.
“Messi winning the World Cup to become the defining player in the tournament would even further cement their star status and what he is – it’s the same with Mbappe. Modric would clearly do something similar but not quite on the same level.”
Argentina vs Croatia – Opta stats
This is the third World Cup meeting between Argentina and Croatia, and first in the knockout stages. Argentina won 1-0 in 1998, before Croatia’s 3-0 win in the 2018 edition in Russia.
Argentina are looking to reach the World Cup final for the sixth time, a figure bettered only by Germany (8). They’ve never been eliminated at the semi-final stage before, most recently beating the Netherlands in 2014.
Croatia were losing finalists in 2018, and could become the fourth European nation to reach consecutive World Cup finals after Italy (1934, 1938), Netherlands (1974, 1978) and Germany (1982, 1986, 1990).
Following their penalty shootout victory against Brazil in the quarter-final, Croatia could become just the second side to eliminate both Brazil and Argentina from the knockout stages of the same World Cup, after Germany in 2014.
Argentina have won just one of their last seven World Cup games against European sides (D3 L3), beating Poland 2-0 in the group stages this year. However, two of those three draws have resulted in penalty shootout victories.
Argentina are without the suspended Marcos Acuna and Gonzalo Montiel so Nicolas Tagliafico is set to start at left-back.
Angel di Maria – who had an impact off the bench against the Netherlands – and Rodrigo de Paul are fit to play for Luis Scaloni’s side.
Borna Sosa and Mislav Orsic have recovered from illness so Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic will be able to select from a fully fit squad.
France vs Morocco – Wednesday, Kick Off 7pm
“France definitely aren’t as good as the side in 2018. In the first half against England, they felt very dangerous – like a tiger ready to pounce. They got the early goal and then sat back.
“I felt they were then dangerous if Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann or Ousmane Dembele got the ball. But it never materialised. I knew they would concede chances defensively and I thought they were so rash thinking of Dayot Upamecano, Theo Hernandez and Aurélien Tchouaméni in the penalty incident.
“I thought they made some really poor decisions in the defensive third. That will cost them against Argentina or Croatia if they play them in the final and it could cost them against Morocco.
“The lack of composure in their defending will worry Didier Deschamps. In terms of depth, Kingsley Coman comes on for Dembele but that’s about it. There’s nothing really else. The best players like Mbappe and Messi, they love subservient players around them to serve their needs. Those that are unselfish and who do the job they don’t want to do.
“I’ve seen that all my career and Olivier Giroud is the perfect foil for Griezmann and Mbappe. He’s like Sheringham was to Shearer, like Yorke was to Cole. That player who plays off and serves the rest of the team. Messi needs that and Cristiano Ronaldo has that element to him to. Mbappe loves Giroud.
“I know France have missed Karim Benzema but there is a better collective spirit and they work better as a team with Giroud up there.
“It’s remarkable what Morocco achieved against Spain and Portugal. I was thinking about how we used to defend deep with England at times, but when I’ve seen Morocco sit in, they’ve also tried to play out of the tight areas in the defensive third.
France vs Morocco – Opta stats
France have never lost against Morocco, with all five of their previous meetings coming in friendlies (W3 D2). The most recent encounter was a 2-2 draw in Saint-Denis in November 2007.
France have alternated between victory and defeat in their six World Cup meetings with African nations, losing 1-0 against Tunisia last time out in this year’s group stage. No team has ever lost against two different African sides in the same World Cup before.
Morocco are looking to become the first African nation to reach the World Cup final – indeed, this game will be the first ever World Cup semi-final contested by an African side.
France are playing in their seventh World Cup semi-final – having been eliminated from each of their first three (1958, 1982, 1986), they’ve won each of their last three matches at this stage (1998, 2006, 2018).
No opposition player has scored against Morocco so far at the 2022 World Cup, with their only goal conceded coming via an own goal against Canada. They’ve kept four clean sheets so far at this tournament, with the last two sides to record five in a single edition going on to lift the trophy (Spain 2010, Italy 2006).
“It takes real courage to try to do that and then they also try to counter-attack. Generally, it’s the story of the tournament and it wouldn’t surprise you if they went and beat France. That said, Mbappe is the difference. It felt against England there were 21 good players and then this phenomenal player, even though he didn’t have his best game.
“There were just moments when he got it and you thought, ‘what is that?’ You don’t see that. It’s the same with Erling Haaland at times. I’m not sure Morocco will be able to handle him. They’ve got injuries as well and tough games but it’s been one of the great stories of the tournament.”
Midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni and centre-back Dayot Upamecano both missed training on Monday as France prepare for their World Cup semi-final against Morocco on Wednesday.
The French federation did not give any explanation for their absence, but sports daily L’Equipe reported that Upamecano had a sore throat and Tchouameni was suffering from a knock.
On the fitness front, Morocco are likely to again be without key defender Nayef Aguerd (hamstring) and will be sweating on the status of skipper Romain Saiss, the other first-choice centre-back.