France go into their World Cup semi-final against neighbours Belgium hoping to show their 1998 World Cup winner Thierry Henry, now part of the Belgian coaching staff, that he picked the wrong side
The irony of Henry, one of France’s all-time soccer greats, plotting his own country’s downfall has not been lost on France coach Didier Deschamps, his former teammate, who called it a “bizarre” situation.
When France take on Belgium at the Saint Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday, the 40-year-old Henry will be on the opposing bench, looking to stop his country from advancing to Sunday’s final.
Henry, who scored 51 goals in 123 international appearances, played for France at four World Cups in all. He was a runner-up in 2006 and also competed in 2002 and 2010.
But for the last two years he has been serving as one of Belgium coach Roberto Martinez’s assistants, his first foray into coaching and seemingly an inspired choice if the rare reviews from the Belgian players are anything to go by.
“Thierry Henry is really important for us. He tells us stories from his playing days and they inspire us,” said Belgium defender Toby Alderweireld. “His presence, his World Cup experience, it is all a very positive influence.”
2. In Henry’s footsteps
One man who’ll be hoping to match Henry’s past feats for France is Kylian Mbappé, Les Bleus’ new wonder boy.
Like Henry, Mbappé grew up in a Paris suburb — Mbappé in Bondy, Henry in Les Ulis. Mbappé has been active in the community and he says he will donate his World Cup earnings to a charity that organises sports for children with disabilities.
Both Henry and Mbappé attended France’s Clairefontaine academy before playing as left-wingers at Monaco, and they both won French league titles as teenagers. Mbappé now wants to replicate another one of Henry’s accomplishments – a World Cup title for France in his first tournament.
With three goals in the tournament so far, the 19-year-old Mbappé has already matched Henry’s total from 1998 and 2006. If he scores again he would become the first Frenchman to score four at a World Cup since Just Fontaine’s record 13 over six games in 1958.
3. Premier League colleagues
Familiarity from facing each other regularly in England’s Premier League will add to the flavour of Tuesday’s World Cup, said Belgian midfielder Nacer Chadli.
The 28-year-old, who plays for relegated West Bromwich Albion, is one of 11 players in the Belgian squad members based at English clubs, to add to five in the French line-up.
“We know all these players so well. We know them at a tactical level, we know what they are capable of doing and we know their individual qualities. I think it’s an advantage for our planning,” Chadli, who scored Belgium’s dramatic stoppage-time winner against Japan in the round of 16, told reporters.
Tuesday’s match sees teammates from English champions Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur go head to head as well as rivalries between club colleagues from Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco.
Among the appetising match-ups, Chelsea have Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and captain Eden Hazard up against N’Golo Kanté and Olivier Giroud, who are certain to start for France. Paul Pogba faces Manchester United club mates Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku.
4. Pavard on the front line
Another player for whom Tuesday’s game will have special significance is Benjamin Pavard, the 22-year-old France right-back who lit up the tournament with a wonder strike against Argentina.
“To show that you can be born here, live and grow up in Jeumont and go on to succeed at the highest level of international football is a wonderful lesson for the children of Jeumont and it gives them hope for the future,” said the local mayor Benjamin Saint-Huille.
The mayor has ensured that banners in support of the local hero have been displayed around the little town of 10,000 inhabitants, a stone’s throw away from Belgium.
Pavard, who plays for VFB Stuttgart in Germany, has emerged as one of the tournament’s revelations, just two years after supporting France’s Euro 2016 campaign from the Lille fan zone. He is not the first football star from Jeumont – Jean-Pierre Papin, the prolific former France and Marseille striker also hails from there.
Sullivan Skiba, who coached Pavard in his youth, said the 22-year-old “has not forgotten where he came from”, and will happily sign autographs and play with the youngsters whenever he returns to the border town.
5. Asterix vs Tintin
No build-up to a France-Belgium game would be complete without references to the two countries’ long comic book traditions — and the press has naturally been awash with them.
“It is more than a match,” Aujourd’hui en France newspaper said on a full front-page spread that featured the two countries’ most beloved comic characters — Tintin for Belgium and Asterix for France.
Le Journal du Dimanche, France’s Sunday paper, devoted six pages to the Franco-Belgian friendship and rivalry — this time with an excerpt from an Asterix comic book on its front page, featuring a row between Gallic and Belgian chieftains.
Meanwhile L’Equipe, the country’s main sports daily, twisted the cover of Tintin’s “Destination Moon” to feature France’s Didier Deschamps and Olivier Giroud approaching a space rocket guarded by Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.