In an end-to-end game full of chances, Samuel Umtiti’s second-half header proved to the be only goal as France defeated Belgium 1-0 Tuesday to reach the World Cup final.
France will face either Croatia or England in Sunday’s championship game at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Belgium will play the loser of the other semifinal in the third-place match on Saturday.
The French will have a chance to win their second-ever World Cup title and first since their 1998 victory on home soil. They reached the 2006 final in Berlin, but lost to Italy on penalties.
Belgium was attempting to reach their first-ever final after defeating favorite Brazil in the quarterfinals. But stars Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne couldn’t find their way through the formidable French defense and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who made three crucial saves in the match.
“The game was very close, very tight,” Belgium manager Roberto Martinez said following the match. “It was going to be decided by whoever could find that final touch in the box or a bit of luck in front of goal. The effort from the players was magnificent, I couldn’t ask for more.”
The Barcelona defender Umtiti — who conceded a penalty that led to a goal in France’s first match against Australia — proved an unlikely match-winner in the mold of Lilian Thuram, the defender who scored both French goals in Les Bleus‘ 2-1 semifinal win over Croatia in 1998.
Umtiti, who was four years old when captain Zinedine Zidane lifted the World Cup in Saint-Denis, outjumped Marouane Fellaini to head Antoine Griezmann’s corner past Courtois and break Belgium’s resistance.
Up in the corporate seats, French President Emmanuel Macron reacted to the goal by shaking the hand of King Philippe of Belgium as FIFA president Gianni Infantino watched on between them.
The goal capped an impressive defensive display by Umtiti, who helped to shut out the most productive attack in the World Cup with 14 goals, and meant three defenders have now scored on France’s route to the final. Benjamin Pavard and Raphael Varane scored in previous matches.
In search of the equalizer, Belgium repeatedly sent over crosses from both wings but Umtiti and Varane used their bodies cleverly to hold off Fellaini and Lukaku.
France coach Didier Deschamps has faced some criticism for being too pragmatic and functional despite having so many stars in his squad, but the organization of the team was superb and Belgium was largely restricted to only minor chances as time wound down.
“It’s me that scored,” Umtiti said, “but we all delivered a big game.”
When the match ended, the French players danced on the field and shook the hand of Thierry Henry, another 1998 World Cup winner who is now Belgium’s assistant coach.
“Vive la France! Vive la Republique!” Griezmann shouted as Umtiti conducted his post-match interview.
Deschamps, the captain of that famous 1998 squad, now has the chance to become the third person to win the World Cup as a player and a coach, after Germany great Franz Beckenbauer and Brazil’s Mario Zagallo.
With Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar no longer in Russia, Hazard and France forward Kylian Mbappe have taken over as the stars of the World Cup and there was a buzz every time either got the ball.
Yet while Hazard — Belgium’s captain — faded after a strong opening 30 minutes, Mbappe was a constant threat. His first touch was after 10 seconds and, after receiving the ball on the right wing, he sped past Jan Vertonghen and then Mousa Dembele in a thrilling run.
At 19, Mbappe wasn’t even born when France won the World Cup for the first and only time with a squad that is just as diverse as the one Deschamps is leading 20 years later.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.