Europe assured of extending World Cup winning streak to 4

The World Cup is staying in Europe, and it’s not even a close race.

All four semifinalists at this year’s tournament in Russia will be European. The most powerful continent in world soccer is also assured of having its fourth straight title winner from a fourth different country.

Europe’s overwhelming dominance in club soccer — fueled by wealth to hire the best global talents — is playing out on the World Cup stage.

South America’s last hopes at the tournament were eliminated Friday in the first two quarterfinal games. Brazil, the last non-European title winner (in 2002), was beaten by Belgium 2-1, and Uruguay lost to France 2-0.

The all-European final foursome will be completed Saturday as England plays Sweden and Russia faces Croatia in the other two quarterfinal matches.

Asked Friday about Europe’s strength, Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez said that “reality from a financial point of view, from a historical point of view” could not be ignored.

“Don’t ask me something that is self-evident,” said the veteran coach, who led Uruguay to the semifinals in 2010.

Back then, Uruguay was eliminated by the Netherlands, which lost to Spain in the final.

Europe’s winning run began with Italy in 2006, Spain followed four years later, and Germany took over in 2014.

A title for France or England in Moscow on July 15 would keep the glory within a closed circle of countries whose national teams, domestic leagues and television markets are known as Europe’s “Big Five”: Spain, Italy and Germany are the others.

They are home to the richest and most storied clubs, attract the most valuable broadcast deals worldwide and place the most teams in the Champions League. The five will have 21 of the 32 places next season.

It is a virtuous circle helping earn more prize money and build lucrative global brands.

It also attracts the best players from other continents. Neymar was almost a late arrival coming from Brazil to Barcelona when he was 21. If the wave of talent flowing to Europe denies playing time to domestic players, it also raises the overall level of play.

In those five countries, national federations and clubs have the money and an obligation to invest in youth coaching programs and keep producing talent. National centers such as Clairefontaine in France and more recently St. George’s Park in England have their own strong identity.

Now even Croatia and Sweden are close to their first World Cup semifinal berths since the 1990s, revealing European depth that South America craves.

Since the 1982 World Cup, when a semifinal round was reinstated, 40 teams will have been involved, and Europe has provided 31 of them. South America has eight, and 2002 co-host South Korea was the other.

Africa has never had a semifinalist and failed to advance any of its five teams from the group stage in Russia. Japan was the only one of five Asian confederation teams to reach the round of 16, losing to Belgium.

It adds up to another European semifinal sweep, following 2006 and 1982.

Europe got 14 places in the 32-team World Cup lineup in Russia (44 percent), though it currently has 20 of the top 32 teams in the FIFA rankings. European dominance increases deeper into the bracket: 10 of the round of 16 teams (62 percent), six of the quarterfinalists (75 percent) and all of the semifinalists.

European club dominance is even greater when looking at World Cup rosters. A total of 74 percent of players selected across the tournament — 544 of 736 — are employed by teams in Europe.

This hegemony could be tough to maintain when the World Cup increases to 48 teams in 2026. Only three extra places were given to Europe, raising its guaranteed number to 16 — one-third of the total.

Regardless, the final World Cup week in Russia is all Europe, all the time.

What to watch for in Saturday’s quarterfinal matchups:

Who’s weak? England coach Gareth Southgate basically picked his team’s path to the semifinals by sending out a squad of reserves that lost to Belgium in the last match of the group round, when both sides had already qualified for the knockout stage. His reasoning: No one wants to play teams like Brazil or France until forced to. His insinuation: Teams like Sweden are weaker. Southgate might not have meant it as a slight and has since called Sweden “bloody difficult.” But when Swedish coach Janne Andersson was asked about it, he curtly suggested any doubters ask his team’s beaten opponents how tough the Swedes are to play. If England wins Saturday’s first quarterfinal in Samara, expect Southgate to be further hailed for his foresight. If Sweden wins, Southgate’s strategy might get a rougher review.

Russia’s run: The host team came into the tournament ranked 70th in the world. Even after drawing a favorable group, expectations were minimal. Advancing to the knockout stage was deemed success enough by some. Then goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev stuck out his left foot and stopped Spain’s final kick of a penalty shootout in the round of 16, and suddenly Russia had pulled off one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. Croatia has one of the most balanced teams in the tournament, but the Russians believe their quarterfinal in Sochi is winnable. If that happens, Russia would be playing a semifinal — maybe even the final — in Moscow’s main stadium, and a country where soccer usually takes a distant back seat to hockey could go bonkers.

New territory: England won the World Cup one time, back in 1966. Sweden lost the final at home to Brazil in 1958. Those are the only times any of the four teams playing Saturday has even made it to a World Cup final, but one of them will play at Luzhniki Stadium on July 15 against 1998 champion France or Belgium.

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