When the spotlight has shone on France in this World Cup, it has illuminated Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba, the team’s attackers. And that made the team’s defenders as anonymous as the French Foreign Legion.
But when coach Didier Deschamps needed them the most, those anonymous defenders came up big Tuesday, shutting down Belgium in a 1-0 victory that sends France to its third World Cup final in 20 years.
The French will play the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between England and Croatia on Sunday in Moscow.
“What happened today, what happened in previous matches, we have to give credit to the players,” Deschamps said. “They are the actors. They do everything. And they work together.”
But Deschamps’ game plan worked too, setting the template for France’s second shutout in as many games and its fourth of the World Cup. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris didn’t have to work particularly hard to get it though, making just three saves. The toughest of those came in the 22nd minute when Toby Alderweireld appeared to beat Lloris with a left-footed shot from the top of the box, but Lloris was able to reach back and make a splendid one-handed save.
He also sprinted off his line to bat down a dangerous cross from Dries Mertens midway through the second half and punched away a right-footed rocket from Axel Witsel in the 81st minute.
Real Madrid center back Raphael Varane took care of much of the rest of Belgium’s attack, roaming the area in front of Lloris to break up crosses or shut down runs from Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.
France even got its only goal from a defender, with Samuel Umtiti, Varane’s partner in the middle, jumping in front of Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini to head in a corner kick from Griezmann in the 51st minute. In a luxury suite wedged between the two decks of St. Petersburg’s $1.1-billion stadium, French president Emmanuel Macron — who was watching the game with King Philippe of Belgium — celebrated the score with a congratulatory handshake from FIFA chief Gianni Infantino.
After the game Umtiti celebrated with a warm hug from Deschamps.
"Enormously proud," Umtiti said. "We worked really hard together, and it's me that scored but we all delivered a big game."
Belgium had come into the game a team of both destiny and destruction. Destiny because the semifinal appearance was only the second in its history and the shiniest jewels in Belgium’s “Golden Generation” led it there by destroying the opposition, averaging nearly three scores a game and getting goals from eight different players.
But it was unable to solve a French team that set up a Maginot Line of six defenders, stretching the width of the field and suffocating what had been a free-wheeling and creative offense.
“The difference between the defeat and winning was just one dead-ball situation,” said Belgian coach Roberto Martinez, who lost for only the second time in 26 games. “That’s how close the game was.”
Belgium dominated in time of possession and passing, but France’s defenders had twice as many clearances. And the only goal.
“We have to give a lot of credit to the way France defended — and even put some attacking players defending very deep,” Martinez said. “We couldn’t find that little bit of magic in front of goal or a little bit of luck.”
Maybe that’s because what was driving France wasn’t just the chance to make a third final in six World Cups, something only Argentina, Germany and Brazil have done. Two years ago, with Griezmann leading the tournament in scoring and Lloris pitching three shutouts, Deschamps’ team made a similar run to the final of the European Championship, only to lose to Portugal in extra time.
Memories of that defeat were mixed in with the celebrations after Tuesday’s victory.
“We didn’t win the Euro final, so that’s why it’s close to my heart to reach this level in the World Cup,” Umtiti said. “I hope it’ll be different this time.”
Added Deschamps: “Who could’ve believed we’d have reached the final of the World Cup? We have to appreciate it. We will come back tomorrow, calmly, and we’ll see who’s going to face us.