France won the match, but not the hearts.
The first semifinal between the two best sides of the World Cup failed to live up to its Battle Royale billing. It was a good match but could have been great had France not played negative football. There was no reason for France to play defensively.
Didier Deschamps could not emerge as a coach of attacking and entertaining football despite having all the weapons in his armoury to do so. He brought the most talented and balanced side among all 32 teams to Russia. Thirteen of the 23 players are of African origin. They were solid everywhere in the line-up, with equally qualified alternatives on the bench. They were all young, hugely talented and highly adventurous.
Yet, the game plan of France's 1998 World Cup-winning captain was solely aimed at winning the match, not the hearts of fans who love beautiful football. He was an orthodox defender in his playing days and has brought that defensive football gene into his coaching. What a disappointment!
It was a sore sight during most of the first half when play was limited to France's half, with Roberto Martinez's men attacking and Deschamps's young talents defending. Thanks to a chancy header by Samuel Umtiti from a curling corner by Antoine Griezmann after the break, France could get away with their ugly game and reach the final for the third time. A goal came from a set-piece in an unlikely France way. It was the first goal by France from a set-piece in this tournament.
My heart really goes out to Belgium, and I can't agree more with captain Eden Hazard for feeling so bitter about France's style of play.
"I prefer to lose with Belgium than win with France," said Hazard after the match. "We know Deschamps' France. We expected that, but we couldn't find that little spark to score a goal. I didn't find it. France scored first and it became difficult.”
Belgium indeed played brilliant football. They had far better ball possession (64 percent), number of passes (595 against France's 345) and corners (5 against France's 4). The Red Devils ruled the whole pitch yet something went wrong when their marksmen entered the D-box and tried to shoot or head into the net -- just some small things they could not do right in front of the goal like Brazil, their opponents in the quarterfinals.
Lady Luck was with them against Brazil, but three days later, against France, she switched sides.
A reversal of fate it may seem. Against Brazil, Belgium chose to keep fending off waves of attacks before knocking the five-time champions out of the tournament on fast counters. Tuesday night saw a role reversal, with Belgium, like Brazil, on the offence and France, like Belgium against Brazil, on the back foot. Belgium dominated the match and France got lucky on the counter.
However, it was really eye-pleasing the way Eden Hazard played his game. He was always busy, doing something -- either winning the ball from his opponents' feet, making diagonal passes, dodging, turning and twisting to free himself from 2-3 chasing defenders or shooting on target. He was truly hazardous for France.
To me, Hazard was the best player with No. 10 jersey in this World Cup. And it is sad that he won't be the one to kiss the famous cup on July 15. But thank you, Hazard, for making football beautiful.
The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star