It’s June 22 2002, at the Gwangju World Cup Stadium and Spain are stepping out to take on tournament hosts - yet severe underdogs - South Korea in a quarter final draw they’d have dreamt of. They’ve topped an easy-looking group, picking up maximum points against Paraguay, South Africa and Slovenia, before beating Ireland in the round of 16. Perhaps, finally, the serial-disappointers are going to achieve what they’d always promised.
For what happened, see Spain vs Russia, World Cup 2018. The team of Barça and Madrid superstars was beyond frustrated by Hiddink’s drilled South Korean side, who never looked in considerable danger, despite the introduction of a young and fresh faced Xavi as the game moved into extra time. The Koreans held their nerve from the spot, and Spain were out.
This story is essentially a template for the World Cup knockout stages; at least one of them happens every year. With that, South Korea were in the semi-final of their own World Cup against Germany. To get there, they had beaten Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain.
Fast forward to 2018 and even those who remember that tournament well don’t seem to understand its lesson. Arguments on Twitter this week have been constant, with one ridiculous question under scrutiny: is England’s run to the semi-final the easiest ever? In general, the unanimous response is no, because of Germany’s in 2002, and a semi-final against South Korea is seen as one of that campaign’s most damning indictments. How little we learn.
Tournament football exists in isolation from the real world. Weird things happen all the time and teams introduce themselves as genuine threats perhaps only for the month in which a World Cup takes place. In 2018, England have beaten the highest ranked African team in the tournament, 2014’s quarter finalists and the side that stopped Italy from even reaching Russia.
There is a real, genuine and justified belief that England can beat Croatia on Wednesday and rightly so. At times, Southgate’s side have genuinely been the most free-flowing and inventive in Russia. But in their semi-final opponents they come up against a team that made Argentina look like schoolchildren, and held their nerve to see off this year’s South Korea in the quarters.
Of course, nobody in their right-mind is suggesting that Croatia represent an easy or even favourable draw for England. But if this exciting young team cannot find a way past a savvy, strong and technically gifted generation of Luka Modric-inspired players, let not their achievements up until this point be dampened by nonsensical talk of ‘an easy run’. This is a magnificent stride forward for a distinctly likeable, honest and talented group of young men.
As England fans we should know better than anyone that at tournaments, rank goes out the window. And yet when we make it to a semi-final, our raw wounds resurface to undermine indisputable progress.
This side absolutely has what it takes to beat Croatia on Wednesday and absolutely deserves to be there, but whatever happens, we must only be proud of their achievements thus far; finally, an England team will return home as heroes.