And then there were four: Messi v Modric and Mbappé v Morocco, as the semi-finals were billed, which had to make you feel for the 10 Argentinian, Croatian and French A.N. Others.
First up, Argentina v Croatia and Joanne Cantwell asked the question that’s been on all our minds: Croatia only has a population of 3.9 million, roughly the same as Grafton Street on Christmas Eve, so why can’t Ireland do what they have done?
“You should be ringing Abbotstown, not me,” said Damien Duff – so, like ourselves, he had no answers.
Instead he turned his attention to Argentina’s tournament thus far, confessing that he’s quite enjoyed those times when they were a touch narky, naughty even, especially when they were a bit goady towards the Dutch after they beat them on penalties.
[ World Cup semi-final as it happened ]
Duffer has always tended to be a champion of the more beautiful side of the game, so his admiration for this rowdy behaviour surprised even himself. “You could argue this is what a year in League of Ireland has done to me,” he said.
Liam Brady wasn’t having it. “If it wasn’t for Messi, I’d want Argentina to go out,” he said, then producing the worst of slurs: “They remind me of Atletico Madrid.”
But Duffer stood his ground – he had no end of admiration for Argentina. “They’re absolute mongrels – and I like it,” he swooned. And there was a special place in his heart for Leandro Paredes. “Looks like he could start a fight in a phone box.”
If Argentina are, say, half pit bull, half Shih Tzu, Croatia are 100 per cent Jack Russell – smaller in stature than most of their opponents, population-wise at least, but when they look in the mirror they see a mastiff staring back.
That was the ITV panel’s view too, without explicitly going down the “absolute mongrels” route, although a good chunk of their build-up to the first World Cup semi-final was devoted to analysing how Harry Kane missed that penalty.
We can’t complain here, some of us are still analysing Wim Kieft’s curly-wurly 1988 header and trying to figure out how it defied physics to beat Packie Bonner, the only time the wizardry was matched when Shane Warne delivered that leg break to Mike Gatting five years later.
Gary Neville sort of concluded that if Harry had buried that penalty (in the net, not the stands), and England had gone on to win, and reached the World Cup final, and won it, then it would have been a triffic tournament for Blighty, so Gareth Southgate should stay in the job. Wrightie nodded. Roy was kinda like, “WTF?”.
Anyway, game time. And by half-time Argentina were 2-0 up, the Messi lad burying a penalty before Julian Alvarez ran from his own half, played a spot of pinball, before inserting the ball in the back of the Croatian net.
Was it a penalty?
Peter Walton (ITV’s resident-expert-former-referee): “Yes”
Nev, Roy, Wrightie: “WOW!”
Over on RTÉ they were having a look at Argentina’s second goal, which started with the breakdown of a Croatian corner.
“Their set-piece coach will be hiding in the showers,” said Duffer. Shay Given agreed. “It was like Homer Simpson going back into the hedge.”
Any chance of Croatia getting back into this, them being Croatia? “Trust me, Argentina, the dark arts, that ain’t happening,” said Duffer. We doubted him. The Jack Russells rarely fail to find a way back.
But 3-0. Messi’s work ahead of creating that tap-in for Alvarez? Ah here. Cancel the other semi-final, give him the trophy.
“That’s Messi when he was 25,” said Ronnie Whelan, knocking a whole decade off the little wonder’s age. “You can’t stop him when he’s like this.”
He’s in the mood, all right.
“I really hope he goes on to win the World Cup,” said our Roy back on ITV, “I feel very privileged to be watching him.”
He wasn’t alone. “We’ll see him at the weekend,” said Mark Pougatch, “the last dance for Lionel Messi.”
Only Mbappe (and 10 A.N. Others) and Morocco standing between him and the moment that will leave most – not all – of us snivelling wrecks: lifting that round goldie thing.