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Compelling World Cup Worth a Periodic Embrace

The competition is as fierce as the fans are passionate and both can be appreciated without a firm grasp of the details.

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One of the many reasons I look forward to the World Cup every four years is the chance to channel my inner Sylvester Stallone.

As Capt. Robert Hatch in 1981’s “Victory,” Stallone had to pass himself off as a goalkeeper in a POWs-vs.-Germans exhibition football match in order to help facilitate the Allied prisoners pulling the ultimate fast one on their Nazi captors.

It’s “The Great Escape” meets “The Longest Yard” meets “Hogan’s Heroes,” and it includes Stallone repeatedly asking English Capt. John Colby (Michael Caine) to help fill in the blanks an American serving in the Canadian Army wouldn’t otherwise naturally understand.

“Hey Colby, where do I stand for a corner kick?”

“At the far post, facing the ball.”

“Thanks. For a while there I thought you were keeping it a secret.”

Such nuances can require some recollecting when you haven’t watched a match since 2014.

So be it.

The Beautiful Game, on this stage and with this much at stake, still entertains even when you’re less than an expert on how it should be played.

The early action provides a compelling refresher course toward that end.

The knockout stage ups the ante significantly in terms of the drama.

And by the time the semifinals arrive, it’s hard not to be fascinated with all that’s taking place.

That explains why my schedule was cleared for Tuesday afternoon’s first semifinal between Belgium and France.

Why the subsequent second semifinal between England and Croatia a day later likewise loomed as must-see TV.

And why I’m already eagerly anticipating Sunday’s championship match.

The competition is as fierce as the fans are passionate.

Both can be appreciated without a firm grasp of the details.

It’s the type of emotion and engagement that translates, even if you can’t pronounce the players’ names.

You don’t need to know who plays where in the Premier League, for example, to know France can defend.

And if you maintain the 1-0 margin by which France advanced confirmed a general lack of anything really interesting having taken place, you weren’t paying close enough attention.

The scoring chances commenced seconds after the ball was kicked off, as Kylian Mbappe, a 19-year-old French phenom whose combustible skill is obvious even to a novice, beat a couple of would-be tacklers, raced down the sideline and centered a ball that was almost converted.

Belgium spent a significant portion of the rest of the 90-plus minutes (97 including stoppage time) conjuring up similar hold-your-breath moments.

“What a chance that’s gone missing,” commentator Stu Holden exclaimed on one such occasion, perhaps channeling his inner Doc Emrick.

France ultimately attempted 19 shots to Belgium’s nine and got five on net to Belgium’s three.

But it was all the near misses at both ends that generated as much if not more intensity and intrigue.

What almost happens can bring you to the edge of your seat at the World Cup, those moments when the ball is launched from a dangerous area and it’s hanging in the air and the fate of a nation is seemingly hanging in the balance.

It’s that, and the set pieces.

Free kicks, and especially corner kicks, are captivating even when they don’t turn out to be game-changing events.

France came up with one of the latter that turned out to be both in the 51st minute, a header to the net that proved to be just enough to keep the dream alive for the tournament’s second-youngest team, a team manager Didier Deschamps had characterized to the FOX TV broadcast crew as “a team less of experience but more of ambition.”

Such a trait in any team is admirable no matter what’s being played.

According to FOX, the now-legendary French header increased to 43.7 percent the number of goals in the tournament that had been scored on set pieces.

“Nobody on the post yet again for Belgium,” Holden lamented.

Apparently, that had been an issue previously.

Where was Capt. John Colby when the Belgians really needed him?

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