The World Cup is a purely international event and one for which most club loyalists in most countries will put rivalry aside and embrace their respective national sides.
Granted, club play does show up from time to time. Spain fired its manager days before the Cup because he took up the Real Madrid job (following Zinedine Zidane’s shock retirement) and the Spanish squad – split fairly evenly between Barcelona and Real Madrid standouts – wasn’t on board with it. More recently, Antoine Griezmann got some attention for choosing not to celebrate a goal, which he explained was because of respect for Uruguayan football and because he was playing against friends, some of whom are from his club career.
This is to say that club loyalties do play a role in how we consume the World Cup, even if national sides come first. And from this perspective, it has been a slightly disappointing Cup in ways for Arsenal supporters. For one thing, Mesut Ozil – arguably the club’s most high-profile international star at this moment – was bounced from the tourney when Germany shockingly exited in the group stage. For another, long-time forward Olivier Giroud, who has since moved on to Chelsea, has played a very prominent role for a strong French team – one that would have been great fun to watch if only Giroud were still at The Emirates (though, granted, some were glad to be rid of him).
Despite these minor nitpicks, however, we have now reached the third-place play-offs, and all of a sudden the odds are giving a decent chance to one remaining Arsenal striker to wear a World Cup medal. He may not have played the most prominent role to this point, but Danny Welbeck is very much a part of the 2018 England squad, which suddenly seems to have as good a chance as any remaining side to win the whole thing.
Welbeck has appeared in just one game so far, but as you’re undoubtedly aware if you’re reading here, England is on something of a dream run. Heading into the quarterfinal battle with Sweden (which England went on to win), one match preview put it about as well as it can be put: there can be little doubt that we are seeing a brand new England in Russia 2018. This national side, which has a recent history of underachievement and at times outright embarrassment, has found itself under Gareth Southgate and behind the leadership and play of a handful of young stars. Sweden was a slightly fortunate draw in the quarterfinal round, but the fact is that England has won the matches it’s supposed to win while the likes of Spain, Germany, Brazil, and Argentina have faltered.
Now, most of the odds (depending on where you look) have the English second only to France in World Cup odds. France will face Belgium in the other semi-final, while England takes on a Croatia team that squeaked by Russia in penalty kicks. Naturally, anything can happen from this point on, and as crazy as this World Cup has been no one should be surprised if we wind up seeing Croatia taking down Belgium in a shock final. Right now, however, for these precious days between the quarters and the semis, England looks to have a very real shot at glory.
And if you doubt the Gunners’ own Welbeck’s contribution in getting the team this far, just listen to his manager. Southgate, speaking specifically about Welbeck and a few other veterans who haven’t seen much of the pitch, recently said that their mentality in training has been as big a reason behind getting to the semi-final as anyone else’s contributions. It’s quite a nice compliment from a manager who appears to have English football operating at its highest level in decades, and it’s something Welbeck will certainly remember if this team goes all the way.
*Update: So there’s more to life than England winning third place. This is just a way to comfort myself*