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Here’s a look at what’s coming up at the World Cup, which is down to its last two matches: the third-place game Saturday in St. Petersburg between Belgium and England, and the final the following day in Moscow between France and Croatia.
KEEP KICKING AND CARRY ON
Gareth Southgate and Roberto Martinez are looking for ways to motivate their squads for the third-place match between England and Belgium. Really, really looking . For Southgate, it’s about continuing the maturation of his young England side, which exceeded expectations by getting this far and even had the lead on Croatia for much of its semifinal before falling in gutting fashion on an extra-time goal. Securing England’s second-best finish at the tournament would be nothing to sneeze at, either, said Southgate, who wore the England shirt himself and never reached the title game. For Martinez, it’s about salvaging “that winning feeling” despite the disappointment among players and fans of a team that had been a fashionable pick to win it all until it failed to score against France . Those sales pitches will be tested by the product on the field, but also by how many fans show up and tune it to watch what historically has been a lackluster prelude to the final.
Croatia’s star midfielder Luka Modric might find it easier on the field than at the mic when he finally answers questions from media Saturday. Modric was charged with perjury by Croatian authorities in March. The charge stems from his testimony at the tax fraud trial of a former executive director at Dinamo Zagreb, Zdravko Mamic. The 2017 trial concerned Modric’s 2008 transfer from Dinamo to Tottenham in the Premier League.
Leaders of several of the European nations that made it to the knockout stage have had a few good-natured exchanges over their teams’ encounters. Now the politics are getting as serious as the soccer. French President Emmanuel Macron is due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin this weekend before attending the final, a game in which fans again are likely to jeer Croatian defender Domagoj Vida for his appearance in a pro-Ukraine video posted in recent days. Putin is headed to Finland the day after that match to meet U.S. President Donald Trump, who spent Friday being pilloried by protesters in London during an official visit to the United Kingdom. As that was happening, the U.S. was busy bringing charges against a dozen Russian intelligence officers accused of hacking into Democratic accounts during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And British leaders have essentially boycotted the World Cup over the poisonings of two British citizens and a former Russian spy and his daughter living in the United Kingdom, which British officials blame on the Russian government, a claim the Kremlin rejects. FIFA typically has enough trouble policing its stance on keeping politics out of the tournament, but for the next 48 hours, the two will be tough to disentangle.