It’s not common for a team that have gotten to the World Cup semi-finals for the first time to meet opposition that which they have such a close connection to. When Belgium play France in St. Petersburg tomorrow night, there will be a lot of hugs and smiles between both sets of players, as the majority of them will be familiar with each other from moments which they played together for some time at club level or playing in Ligue1 (France’s first division) . Belgium has quite a bit of French-based players and their French connection could prove key to them overcoming their opponents, particularly through the experience and expertise of two talis(men)”: Thierry Henry and Eden Hazard.
Thierry Henry needs little introduction. French legend, 1998 World Cup winner, 2006 World Cup finalist, 2009 Champions League winner… ring a bell? His remarkable experience as a player has significantly helped him as Belgium’s assistant coach since he became appointed in 2016. The Belgian squad has grown extremely fond of him, and they’re open-minded to anything he has to offer to the team — whether it’s advice, tactical suggestions, or just a good laugh. For good reason, Henry’s presence at the 2018 World Cup has been as discreet as he can make it, but the attention he’s attracted cannot be controlled when almost all of the cameramen have been turning their lenses on him.
However, the French contingent who once praised him, are disgruntled by the fact that he’s plotting his country’s downfall. Didier Deschamps, France’s manager and Henry’s captain when the World Cup and 2000 European Championship were won by Les Bleus, calls it “bizarre” that his compatriot will be on the opposing bench tomorrow evening; encouraging not Mbappe, but instead, Romelu Lukaku. Olivier Giroud also shared his comments, saying “It is bizarre to have Thierry against us in this match. I would be very proud to show Thierry that he chose the wrong camp.” Interestingly, it will be a blushing set of “Bleus” if Belgium overcome the French. For that very reason, tomorrow’s semi-final is being labeled as the Thierry Henry Derby.
Eden Hazard, at the moment, may not be a legend like Henry is. But he could, very well, go on to be within the next few years. He’s been a phenomenal talent since he’s dashed into the spotlights, and is even being regarded as the third best player in the world (behind Ronaldo and Messi) for his scintillating performances during the past four years. Eden grew up in France with his three brothers – Thorgan, Kylian and Ethan – and they were avid supporters of the French national team. Last week, He even admitted that they were bigger fans of France than Belgium.
“With my brothers, we were always bigger France supporters than Belgium, as we grew up with France ’98.”
(Quote via BeIn Sports)
Apart from watching the French national team, Hazard spent seven years of his career playing in France for Lille. In 2005, he moved from Belgium to France where he began his senior career, joining Lille. He spent two years in the club’s academy and, at the age of 16, made his professional debut in November 2007. He went on to become an integral part of Lille under manager Rudi Garcia, racking up 36 goals in 147 senior appearances. At Lille, he played alongside the likes of Frenchman Dmitri Payet, Mathieu Debuchy and Lucas Digne, who all went on to play for the France National team. Although he may not be up against them in tomorrow’s quest for the final, he will up facing club-mates Ngolo Kante and Olivier Giroud. Hazard’s insight on French football could be a major asset to Roberto Martinez’ tactics.
Besides Henry and Hazard, there are a few other members of the Belgian squad with French connections who could use their experiences in France to plot against their semi-final opponents. Thorgan Hazard, Eden’s brother, played at Lens for four years (2008-2012) where he was team-mates with Rafael Varane, who’s now a vital figure in the French squad. Striker Michy Batshuayi played for Marseille between 2014 and 2016, scoring 26 goals in 62 appearances. During his tenure, he played alongside two players who he’ll be up against tomorrow: Benjamin Mendy and Florian Thauvin.
But enough of former French-based players — Belgium have an asset who would have useful intel on France’s biggest threat, Kylian Mbappe, and that man is right-back Thomas Meunier. Meunier currently plays with Mbappe at Paris Saint-Germain so he’ll know a thing or two on how to stop the young Frenchman, as he most likely would have done in training.
While it can be argued that the French players who have Belgian team-mates can provide information on how to stifle their opponents, Belgium’s assets outnumber the French, especially with Henry being the spearhead. Would the significant amount of intel against France work to Belgium’s benefit? Well, that’s left to be seen. But we are guaranteed a thrilling spectacle between the two sides. A place in the final is at stake and both teams will (hopefully) be at their best, so we can only expect the best from the fourth-to-last match of what has been a truly memorable World Cup so far.
Image Credit: Bleacher Report Football