KALININGRAD, Russia (CNN) – Sometimes, winning isn’t everything. Just ask the football fans from England and Belgium, many of whom would rather that their team lose Thursday’s World Cup Group H encounter.
Both of the countries have already guaranteed their qualification for the World Cup’s round of 16, courtesy of wins against group stage rivals Panama and Tunisia. So, what’s at stake is which team takes top spot, a position that would traditionally ensure an easier path through the latter reaches of the tournament.
Except, this time around, with many of the bigger teams underperforming and one half of the draw stacked with dangerous opposition, it’s actually the reverse that’s true.
While the winner will potentially have to face the likes of Brazil and France en route to the final, the losing team could make it to Luzhniki Stadium on July 15 having only overcome the perceived weaker Sweden and Denmark in the quarterfinals and last four.
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez certainly seemed tempted by the proposition in a pre-match press conference, openly admitting that victory against England wasn’t his chief concern. “We have qualified and that was the priority,” he said. “We need to look at our individual players. We want to perform well, but the priority is not to win. That is the reality. We have put ourselves in this situation, we wanted to qualify, and we have done that.”
Martinez, who said that he will rest all-time top scorer Romelu Lukaku, called Thursday’s match a celebration. “Two teams can celebrate being qualified for the knockout phase,” he added.
England boss Gareth Southgate was more pragmatic, but his words could later be seen as naive should a beaten Belgium breeze through to the final. “We have no idea who, when or where we will play,” said Southgate, stressing the dangers of plotting a path through a tournament that has already thrown up no shortage of major shocks. “We’re just pleased we’re in the next round.”
After all, any projections would be rendered immediately and embarrassingly irrelevant, if the sides cannot overcome their last 16 opponents — one of Japan, Senegal or Colombia. “We’ve not won a knockout game since 2006,” stated Southgate with a shrug. “So, why we are starting to plot which would be a better venue for our semifinal is beyond me really.”
According to sports data company Gracenote, Southgate’s men have a 24 percent chance of reaching the last four should they emerge as group winners, but a 35 percent chance should they finish second. But, the other side of the argument is that the value of instilling a “winning mentality” and generating “momentum” cannot be underestimated.
“We’re building a team that everyone back home can see are passionate to play for England,” Southgate said, “that want to win every time they go out and are improving every time.”
“We want to win,” Southgate continued. “That would mean we top the group and then we can move forward. I go back to the fact we’re trying to develop a winning mentality and I can’t imagine a situation where I talk to the players about anything else. It just wouldn’t be authentic for what we’ve been trying to build for the last two years.”
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