Unlikely World Cup semi-finals cause stir

Croatia have won their way through to the World Cup semi-finals for the second time

English fish and chips against Croatia's famous fish risotto. France's vin et fromage versus Belgian beer and waffles.

Welcome to the final four of the World Cup, perhaps the most improbable of soccer's 21 showpiece championships.

Host Russia left in tears Saturday night, jilted like a suitor at the end of a Pushkin poem when it drew level with Croatia late in extra time only to lose the last quarter-final on penalty kicks.

Germany's Teutonic efficiency departed earlier, along with Brazil's yellow-shirted samba style and Spain's tiki-taka pass-a-thon.

Lionel Messi's Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal couldn't get past the round of 16.

Italy's Azzurri and the Netherlands' Oranje didn't even earn an invite.

"Whoever was the favourites to win, the big teams, are home," Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said after his team's second consecutive penalty shootout victory.

"Those who are hard working, who are compact, who are united and who are well organised, they are here in Russia, and this is the character of the four teams remaining in the tournament."

Celebrer la nouvelle.

First up Les Bleus vs. De Rode Duivels on Tuesday night in Saint Petersburg, a match-up of western European neighbours.

Then The Three Lions vs. Vatreni on Wednesday night in Moscow.

Is football coming home or is the title going somewhere new?

"We're in a World Cup semi-final. Whether we're in the top four in the world is something we would still have to prove," England manager Gareth Southgate said.

"It will be a sign to all clubs that, whether it's in England or abroad, that English players can play, that we've got players with super technique."

By the long-maligned FIFA rankings, these semi-finals are unlikely.

Belgium are ranked third in the world, France seventh, England 12th and Croatia 20th.

Since winning their only title at Wembley in 1966, England had reached the World Cup semi-finals just once, in 1990.

France lost semi-finals in 1958 and 1982, won their only World Cup at home in 1998, then lost the 2006 final.

Croatia fell to France in the 1998 semi-finals in their first appearance as an independent nation.

Belgium's only other semi-final appearance was in 1986.

No matter which team wins, the final four is a triumph of the Big Five - Europe's top professional leagues.

Eighty-one of the 92 players in the semi-final squads are with clubs in England (40), Spain (12), France (12), Germany (nine) and Italy (eight).

Dalic hopes in a year of the outsider, the least-heralded team prevails.

"We don't want to stop. We will try to play our best game," he said.

"I trust us."