England will attempt to reach the World Cup final for the first time since 1966 on Wednesday when they face a talented Croatia team for the right to play France for football’s biggest prize.
In front of 80,000 spectators at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, Gareth Southgate’s England side are hoping their young legs can carry them past a Croatia team who have endured two consecutive penalty shootouts on the way to the semi-final.
England will grind to a halt for the 1800 GMT kickoff, with an estimated 30 million people across Britain expected to watch on TV and hundreds of thousands more cramming into pubs and public viewing areas to follow the game.
Despite a summer heatwave in England, many fans are wearing waistcoats in a sign of support for Southgate, who has sported one at matches since the tournament began.
“We can feel the energy and the support from home and it’s a very special feeling and a privilege for us,” Southgate said on Tuesday.
England are in the last four of the World Cup for the first time since losing to Germany on penalties in 1990.
Southgate said he was convinced that win or lose, his team have a bright future after decades of English under-achievement on the international stage.
“We’re going into a semi-final but it just seems like it’s the next step on the journey,” Southgate said.
Croatia are wary of the threat posed by England captain Harry Kane, the tournament’s leading scorer with six goals so far, while England will have to close down arguably the best player of this World Cup, Luka Modric.
– Croatia jersey –
Six charter flights with more than 1,000 people on board took off from Croatia — a country of just four million people — to swell the team’s support in Moscow to an expected 10,000 fans.
It is the first time since 1998 that the Balkan nation has reached this stage.
Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic gave British Prime Minister Theresa May a Croatia jersey on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels.
May said Southgate’s team had done “a fantastic job”, adding: “I’m sure they are going to go on to do well and I wish them all the best of luck tonight.”
She will not attend the match, or the final if England are in it, because Britain has imposed a diplomatic boycott on Russia after blaming Moscow for the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy in England.
France reached the final for the third time in their history on Tuesday when a second-half header from Samuel Umtiti gave the 1998 champions a 1-0 victory against Belgium in Saint Petersburg.
The win sent tens of thousands of French people pouring onto the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris in scenes of joy last seen when France won the World Cup two decades ago.
In delirious scenes in Paris, fans let off fire crackers and released smoke flares.
Despite the much-vaunted attack of teenager Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, France’s defence proved the difference as they shut down Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku and they showed they will be hard to beat on Sunday.
French President Emmanuel Macron was in the stadium to watch the match and raised his arms in delight when France took the lead.
France coach Didier Deschamps said he was delighted to have the chance to bury the pain of the Euro 2016 final, which his side lost on home soil to Portugal.
“Finals have to be won because we have still not got over the one we lost two years ago,” he said.
It was a painful defeat for Belgium, foiled at the semi-final for the second time in their history, as the clock ticks on their so-called “golden generation” of players.
Hazard shone at times but Kevin De Bruyne was quiet and Manchester United striker Lukaku was a shadow of the player he had been earlier in the tournament, even though Belgium enjoyed most of the possession.