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Gareth Southgate and England are ready to face the music. No other soccer nation dwells on decades of failure quite like the English. Southgate was so demoralized by his penalty kick failure against Germany in the 1996 European Championship semifinals, he avoided The Lightning Seeds “Three Lions,” the team’s official song when it hosted the tournament.

Now the song, with its repeated chorus of “football’s coming home,” is a staple again, No. 5 this week on YouTube UK’s top music videos chart with more than 2 million views on the day of England’s last match. “‘Football’s coming home’ is a song I couldn’t even listen to for 20 years, frankly, so for me it has a slightly different feel,” Southgate said Tuesday on the eve of England’s World Cup semifinal match against Croatia. “But it’s nice to hear people enjoying it again.”

When the song first was released, the chorus proclaimed “Three lions on a shirt/Jules Rimet still gleaming/Thirty years of hurt/never stopped me dreaming.” A 1998 update changed the third verse to “no more years of hurt.”

England hasn’t played in the semifinals of a major tournament since Southgate’s penalty kick at Wembley was saved by Andreas Koepke 22 years ago, and Andrea Moeller put the next kick over David Seaman and under the crossbar. The most-cherished national team memory remains the 1966 World Cup final victory at Wembley over West Germany, a demarcation point in the island’s history as much as 1066 (the Norman invasion) and 1707 (union with Scotland). “It was a long time ago, so not too many of us can remember that far back,” said midfielder Jordan Henderson, born in 1990.

The winner Wednesday advances to Sunday’s final against France. Southgate wants to break stereotypes, and not just on the field. “I’m rare breed. I’m an Englishman that doesn’t drink tea,” he said.

England and Croatia are teams that innovated over time but have generally been immutable during the World Cup, sticking to virtually identical starting lineups except for group phase finales, after advancement was secure. In the other four games, Croatia’s only variable to its 4-2-3-1 formation was whether to start captain Luka Modric in a deep midfield role and Andrej Kramaric more advanced, or to move up Modric and start Marcelo Brozovic.

Right back Sime Vrsaljko limped off during the quarterfinal win over host Russia and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic had a hamstring injury during extra time but remained in the match. When asked about injuries, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic responded through a translator with inconclusive palaver about Vrsaljko having “this niggle.”

England has gone with a 3-5-2, and the only change was to start Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midfield after Dele Alli injured a thigh. “The biggest thing that the gaffer’s brought since he’s come in, which he’s brought right from day one, was identity, and about the way that we wanted to create a team,” Henderson said. “You can see that togetherness on the pitch now, and I think that’s valuable in crucial moments in big games, and yeah, I can definitely say this is most together England team that I’ve been involved in, and so I think that makes a massive difference and you get your rewards for that.”

With an average age of 26, England is one of the youngest teams at the World Cup. “We were never quite sure how far this team could go,” Southgate said. “The age of the players, the improvement in the players, the hunger in the players has been apparent for everybody to see. We’re really proud in the style that we’ve played, with the intelligence that we’ve played, and that we’ve performed under pressure and dealt with difficult situations in games where we’ve had to wait until the last minute to score, we’ve had to recover from conceding in last minute, we’ve been through extra time, penalties.”

Croatia made its only semifinal appearance in 1998, losing 2-1 to host France. Defender Dejan Lovren is a teammate of Henderson’s on Champions League finalist Liverpool, and Lovren bristled when asked about a 4-1 loss at Tottenham last October when England striker Harry Kane scored twice.

“It’s completely irrelevant,” he said through a translator. “Why didn’t you ask me how I played well against him? You are just nitpicking my poor performances.”


Moscow (AFP)

France will unleash the attacking talents of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann against Eden Hazard’s gifted Belgium side in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday with a place in the World Cup final at stake.


The semi-final matchup of the European neighbours promises to be full of intrigue as France aim to reach the final for the first time since a Zinedine Zidane-led team did so in Germany in 2006. Belgium will be seeking to break new ground by reaching the final for the first time in their history — they have only reached the semi-finals once before, in 1986. The winner will face either Croatia or England, who play on Wednesday, in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday.


With Eden Hazard pulling the strings and Romelu Lukaku providing the firepower, Belgium have what it takes to beat France. But their secret weapon could be on the sidelines in the shape of one of France’s greatest players of all time, Thierry Henry, who is now assistant to head coach Roberto Martinez.

Former Arsenal and Barcelona forward Henry was part of the French squad that won the World Cup on home soil 20 years ago and played 123 times for his country, scoring 51 times. Now it is his job to help halt the run of his home nation.

Martinez explained how Henry’s experience of pressure moments offered something other members of the former Everton manager’s staff could not.

“What we didn’t have was international experience, the know-how of winning a World Cup, the know-how of being a footballer, how you are expected to perform in front of the world and knowing how you feel in those moments,” the Spaniard said.

Thierry Henry

Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne said Henry had talked little about his feelings. “Perhaps he will sing the Marseillaise (before the game), which I find normal,” De Bruyne said. “It might be a bit difficult for him but he’s working for Belgium now, he wants us to win.”

Belgium’s confidence will be high after they knocked out Brazil in the quarter-finals and they are the only team to have won all their matches in Russia, top-scoring with 14 goals. Didier Deschamps’ France side failed to fire in their group matches but burst into life in the 4-3 demolition of Argentina as Mbappe overshadowed Lionel Messi and confirmed his arrival as a new superstar of the game. The French then showed their steel in the 2-0 disposal of Uruguay in the quarter-finals.

France are favourites because of their mix of youth and experience allied to tournament nous after they reached the Euro 2016 final. While World Cup fever builds at home, England are avoiding the hype as Gareth Southgate prepares his team in their tranquil base near Saint Petersburg for their first semi-final since 1990.

While many England fans are surprised by the unheralded team’s progress, midfielder Dele Alli says the squad always believed they could go far. “We had to believe and we know how talented we are as a squad,” he said. “We know we have some unbelievable players and a great manager and everyone is clear on what we want to do.”

Southgate has told his players they have the potential to be bigger heroes even than the team featuring Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton that won on home soil in 1966.

Captain Harry Kane is leading England’s charge with six goals so far, putting him top in the race for the Golden Boot. Lukaku is on four goals and Griezmann and Mbappe have three each.

Despite England being taken over by football fever, Wimbledon chiefs say the men’s final on Sunday will start at its traditional time even if it clashes with a possible appearance of the national team in the World Cup final.

However, they say they will have no objection if the Centre Court crowd want to take sneak peeks of the action from Moscow on their phones.

Croatia, who have matched the achievements of their 1998 team in reaching the last four, can count on Real Madrid’s midfield talisman Luka Modric but his teammate Andrej Kramaric says England’s lack of superstars is what makes them a cohesive unit.

“England was one of the favourites for me for the tournament because they have a young and hungry team with no big, international stars, so it won’t be easy for us,” he admitted.

Croatia could well be battling fatigue and injuries after a strength-sapping penalty shootout to edge out host nation Russia on Saturday.

Photo: AFP


ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters)

Simon Evans

A week ago when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were sent packing from the World Cup, the stage was set for Brazil’s Neymar to take over the role of the tournament’s true star.

But it is now Belgium’s Eden Hazard who is making the strongest bid for that crown.

On Friday night in Kazan, Neymar too saw his World Cup end prematurely, as a Brazil team packed with talent but over-reliant on the forward’s inconsistent individual contribution, were beaten 2-1 by a brilliant Belgium team, inspired by the gifted Hazard.

The semi-final clash against France will give a chance for the 19-year-old Frenchman Kylian Mbappe to make his claim to be the tournament’s most exciting talent and the final itself could throw up another contender but at this stage it is Hazard who is setting the standard. Face to face with Neymar on Friday, the difference between their contributions was evidently clear.

Many will blame Brazil’s exit on the way in which their attacks were constantly funnelled towards Neymar in the hope that he would deliver the world-class individual skill he has shown he is capable of but which he rarely delivered in Russia.

With all the talent and Brazilian coach Tite’s disposal, the vortex of Neymar ended up weakening their collective effort, whereas Hazard has had the exact opposite effect on Belgium.

The Chelsea winger showcased his individual skill numerous times against Brazil, especially with a mesmerising dribble from wide in the second half, and the statistics showed that all 10 of his dribbles in the game ended with his team still in possession. But his contribution went well beyond the eye-catching moments of skill.

Hazard dictated the tempo of the game, pressing the accelerator for counter-attacks that ripped open Brazil’s defence but also, especially in the second half, slowing down play and maintaining possession.

That aspect of game management, of understanding the right moment to burst forward and equally the opportune time to calm things down, is what makes Hazard more than just a tricky winger or support striker.

And he is part of an attacking unit that the French will be very wary of on Tuesday night in St Petersburg. The highlight moment of the win was Kevin De Bruyne’s superb strike for Belgium’s second, after a glorious run from midfield and killer pass from Romelu Lukaku.

The goal showed that while Belgium hugely benefit from Hazard they are far from dependent on him.

Indeed, Roberto Martinez’s side have had nine different goalscorers, excluding own goals, in this tournament. Only Italy in 2006 and France in 1982 with 10 each have ever had more in a single tournament.

Hazard’s ability has never been in question but there were some, heading into this tournament, who wondered if he had the mental fortitude to deliver on the biggest stage.

He was disappointing at the last World Cup in Brazil and two years ago at the European Championship he drifted out of the game during his team’s quarter-final loss to Wales.

But here, when Belgium were facing a similar upset, trailing Japan in the last 16, it was his magical twist and turn and then pin-point cross that created Marouane Fellaini’s headed equaliser.

He may not have an attention-grabbing personality or a strong marketing appeal but Hazard will surely be in demand after this tournament from Europe’s biggest spenders.


Ejiri Igho

On the sidelines of a small football pitch at a university in Cairo, Hanan Hassan remembers starting out as a referee and the response she got from one female player’s mother.

“In a loud voice she yelled as she was looking towards me: ‘god bless you my daughter and I hope that my own daughter becomes like you’,” Hassan recalls, proudly.

For years, women referees in Egypt have officiated at lower-level football matches but now have their sights set on the premier league. “My colleagues abroad have already presided over the men’s tournaments in their countries, so why not in Egypt?” asked fellow referee Mona Atalla.

Dressed in trousers and a pink shirt carrying the FIFA logo, Hassan and Atalla, both 37, presided over the evening all-women friendly game at Ain Shams University in the Egyptian capital.

Egyptian female footballers 2

While Hassan started her career as a professional referee in 2006, Atalla was part of the first group of female referees registered in Egypt in 1998 who were allowed to oversee all-women and junior male tournaments. After years on the pitch, Atalla and her female colleague Pousy Said were finally allowed in April to officiate a match in the men’s second and third division leagues.

The decision by the Egyptian Football Association’s referee committee raised hopes that women referees will soon be holding the red and yellow cards in the top-tier premier league. Atalla has already worked at international women’s tournaments, including the under-20s World Cup. “Our expertise is not inferior to that of the male referees, and the law (on football refereeing) is the same and should be implemented,” she added.

Hassan, who also holds an international referee licence, argued women may actually have an advantage on the pitch. “If the men’s game does include some violence, the presence of a female referee could push some players to be more appropriate,” she said, standing tall on the pitch with her hair covered. “It is natural for me to hand my decisions with a smile so that I absorb the anger of the person in front of me,” Hassan quipped. There are just 15 women working as referees in Egypt, out of 60 registered with the country’s FA, according to referee committee head Azab Haggag.

He sees no reason for women not to officiate more high-profile matches, “but it has to be done gradually so that the fans are more prepared for it and accept it.”

 Atalla, whose brothers and husband are also referees said she has seen attitudes change over the years. At first “some people saw it as strange for women to be playing football, and even more so for them to be officials… with the decision held in her hands,” she said. “As the job was being practised by women who do their jobs perfectly, people have become very proud of their presence in the field,” said Atalla.

Egyptian female footballers

But as the women referees are fighting to gain more ground, Haggag said the FA has received some complaints from female players. Norhan Hamdy, a 21-year-old who was playing in the game at Ain Shams University, is one of the footballers who objects to women referees. “As a female football player I prefer that a man officiates my games,” said Hamdy, who believes some women referees are influenced by their emotions and can be biased towards their friends.

Determined to see women referees promoted to the higher leagues, Atalla said such prejudices must be confronted: “We must fight this thought.”


Ejiri Igho

As the World cup continues wowing the world, Shares of Juventus Football Club SpA surged following reports the Italian soccer club is poised to sign five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.

Current club Real Madrid would consider a fee of about 100 million euros ($117 million) for its record goal-scorer, a fraction of his 1 billion-euro release clause, Spanish sports website Marca reported. The 33-year-old agreed to accept a 30 million-euro salary from Juventus, A Spanish newspaper reported, saying the clubs still need to reach a transfer agreement.

Juventus shares rose as much as 9.7 percent in Milan, the biggest intraday rally since a crucial Champions League win in March for the team that would later crash out in a quarter-final defeat at the hands of its Spanish rival, sealed by a penalty goal from Ronaldo. The stock has climbed 23 percent in the last five days as speculation of a possible transfer gathered pace.

While a fee of the reported amount may seem high for a player in the twilight of his career, it would be a coup for the Turin-based side known as “la Vecchia Signora,” or The Old Lady, given Ronaldo’s global brand appeal as well as his on-field talent.

Ronaldo is a “marketer’s dream” who would entice fresh revenue to Juventus through sponsorships, full stadiums and potential broadcasting rights, Robert Wilson, a lecturer in sports business management at Sheffield Hallam University in the north of England, said by email. The fee would top the 80 million pounds ($105.8 million) Real Madrid paid Manchester United for the Portuguese star in 2009.


Russians Celebrate 1

Russian fans danced in the streets of Kaliningrad on the Baltic and kissed strangers in Vladivostok in the Far East after their team defied all expectations to reach the World Cup quarter-finals. In the Black Sea resort of Sochi, thousands of fans with Russian flags draped around their shoulders watched a giant screen transfixed and cars in central Moscow honked from dusk till dawn.

A mixture of disbelief and jubilation is gripping the host nation after their team pulled off one of the biggest World Cup upsets in recent memory, sending 2010 champions Spain packing after a penalty shootout decided their last-16 tie. “It’s great. Unbelievable. We are champions,” 27-year old Muscovite Anna Glazkova said after Sunday’s match. We believe we will now be in the final with Brazil.”

The penalty shootout turned goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev into a national hero after a backs-to-the-wall performance in which they had just over a quarter of possession. “What is there to hide, we were hoping for penalties,” Akinfeev admitted to reporters. It is the type of honesty that is endearing this rag-tag team of journeymen to a nation unused to celebrating its football team.

Russia is at heart an ice hockey country in which the beautiful game is played — but not necessarily very well. The chant often filling Russian stadiums during matches is “shai-bu!” — the word for “hockey puck” — a teasing reminder to the footballers that their hockey counterparts know how to score. But the roar of the 80,000-crowd packed into Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium — the same word echoing in bars and metro stations and shouted in Komsomolsk-on-Amur 6,000 kilometres (3,800 miles) to the east — was “Ro-ssi-ya!” over and over again. “Hurray!” Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev tweeted from the International Space Station after watching the match streamed live on a floating laptop.

“I always knew we could do it,” a shaman from Siberia told the national Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

Russians Celebrate 2

– Writing history –

Coach Stanislav Cherchesov had already made history by leading Russia out of the group for the first time since the Soviet era. Many feared the worst when the hosts entered the tournament as the lowest-ranked team and without a win in eight months. But Russia thumped Saudi Arabia and Egypt by a combined 8-1 margin in the first two games. They played attacking football. They looked like they belonged.

A 3-0 defeat in their final group match to Uruguay dampened spirits and set the scene for Sunday’s nervy clash against a Spain side that had not lost in two years — a run of 23 games. The match added with the Sport Express daily running just one word across its front page: “HURAAAAAAAY!” Cherchesov has now written another page of history, becoming just the second Soviet or Russian coach to win in the knockout stage of a World Cup.

The Soviets beat Hungary in 1966 end went on to finish fourth in England but their last appearance in the quarter-finals came in 1970. Their next one comes on Saturday when they play Croatia in Sochi’s Fisht Stadium — home of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Russia are now just two wins away from being in the final and playing for the right to lift the trophy in front of President Vladimir Putin at the Luzhniki on July 15. The sports-mad Russian leader stayed away from the stadium on Sunday because of what the Kremlin said was a busy schedule. Many on social media speculated it was because most expected Russia to lose. Russia could potentially play England in the semi-finals and then realise Muscovite Glazkova’s dream of going up against five-time champions Brazil with the trophy at stake.

Photo: AFP / Maxim ZMEYEV and Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV


Russia are hoping for a World Cup miracle on Sunday as the host nation take on 2010 winners Spain for a place in the quarter-finals following the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

The other last-16 match pits a talented Croatia team led by Luka Modric against Denmark, but the sides in action will struggle to emulate the drama of Saturday’s first two last-16 matches.

Russia came into the tournament derided by their own supporters after a string of defeats in warm-up matches but they thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in their opener and then swept aside Egypt 3-1, making even their own sceptical public believe.

A comprehensive defeat to Uruguay provided a reality check but Russia and midfielder Denis Cheryshev will be roared on by much of the 80,000-crowd in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow and they see no reason to fear Andres Iniesta, Isco and Diego Costa.

Photo: AFP / Alexander NEMENOV