Strange days at the World Cup
Kylian Mbappe and N'Golo Kante (Getty Images)
Johannesburg - By the time you read this, either Croatia or host Russia will be out of contention for the World Cup title, and all four semi-final places will be settled.
OPINION: It is time for Africa to forget about muti mumbo jumbo
The first semi-final, to be played on Tuesday between France and Belgium, was confirmed after the former eliminated Uruguay 2-0 and the latter caused an upset by eliminating Brazil, the other South American representative, 2-1 on Friday.
England will meet the winner of last night’s match between Russia and Croatia.
Even before a single ball was kicked in anger, the warning signs were there that this might turn out to be a weird World Cup.
Even four-time champions Italy, perennial favourites Holland, the US, who have made it a habit to qualify and Africa’s hope, Ghana, all missed out on qualification for the biggest spectacle in world sport.
But the results that the tournament has churned out have had football pundits tearing their notebooks up as the form book has been shredded to pieces at almost every turn.
The oddness of this global shindig has ensured that by this stage there is no Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Neymar Jr on the field.
After a glittering start that saw him grab a hat-trick in the opening fixture, the fabled CR7’s world came crumbling down around him as his dream of winning the football Holy Grail ended in tears after his country was bundled out by a gutsy Uruguay, thanks to a well-taken Edison Cavani brace.
As you might already know, it is the first time since this tournament started 88 years ago that neither Brazil, Germany nor Argentina are in the semi-finals.
Brazil have won the cup an unprecedented five times, followed by Germany with four, while Argentina have tasted victory twice.
Anyone who would have told you at the beginning of this event that Sweden would be in the last eight would surely have received the kind of look reserved for people who have completely lost their marbles.
Well, by the time the World Cup kicked off, we had become used to the fact that two of the smallest countries on the planet, Iceland and Panama, were among the 32 teams regarded as the “cream of world football”.
And what would a World Cup be without new heroes and stars being born?
So far, French newbie Kylian Mbappé has been sensational.
Paris SaintGermain paid Monaco €180 million (R2.6 billion) for him two years ago, but surely his value must have increased dramatically since he became the youngest French player – he is only 19 – to score in a World Cup.
Mbappé was born six months after the French golden generation of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and current national coach Didier Deschamps won the World Cup in 1998.
Other newly minted heroes include CSK Moscow midfielder Aleksandr Golovin, who is said to have signed for English football giants Chelsea, and compatriot and goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev.
England shot-stopper Jordan Pickford also catapulted himself to stardom by saving a penalty against Colombia.
And what about controversy at the World Cup?
Well, Pickford drew some after The Sun reported that television footage revealed that he had notes hidden on the neck of a water bottle he used during the penalty shoot-out against Colombia.
Speculation was that the notes contained information on which side the Colombian penalty kickers would go.
On the goal-scoring front, England skipper Harry Kane was still in line for the Golden Boot award with six strikes.
Following on his heels are gangling Belgian goal-poacher Romelu Lukaku with four and Antoine Griezmann (France) on three. Artem Dzyuba of Russia was also on three goals – but that was before last night’s game.
On the coaching front, by reaching the semi-final following his 2-0 victory over Sweden yesterday, Gareth Southgate has endeared himself to the English faithful, whose hearts have been consistently broken since their country won the World Cup in 1966.
Roberto Martínez is another one who has done a great job with Belgium, who are now on a 23-match unbeaten streak.
Lessons aplenty have come out of this World Cup.
One is that Africa is far behind its counterparts when it comes to the game of football.
African teams need to re-energise, relook and reform their football structures if they are to catch up or they’ll forever remain also-rans.
Having one football star does no longer guarantee success.
Fifa’s ranking method is spot on as Russia at number 70 is the lowest-ranked team among those that made the last eight, with the next being Sweden at number 24.
The other quarter-finalists were ranked as follows: Brazil (2), Belgium (3), France (7), England (12), Uruguay (14) and Croatia (20).
It has indeed been a World Cup of surprises and Russia as host has put on a great show.
The event will certainly leave an indelible mark when it finally wraps up on Sunday – hopefully with a great final fit for a grand finale.