France v Belgium: Kevin De Bruyne takes 'pressure' of World Cup semi-final in his stride
Manchester City playmaker wary of France's quality but has belief his Belgium side will reach the final
Last year, in one of the many interviews he presumably gives throughout the season, Kevin De Bruyne declared Belgium were going to the World Cup to become champions.
Now, two matches from proving soothsayer as well as superstar footballer, the midfielder was reminded of said statement at a packed press conference in Saint Petersburg.
In defeating Brazil on Friday, Belgium's acclaimed side set up a semi-final with France on Tuesday. So, on Monday, De Bruyne doubled down on his intentions. Ever so close to the trophy – Belgium’s previous World Cup best was the semis, in 1986 – he fully understands these opportunities do not come around often.
“Obviously, it was not with a flair of arrogance that I said that back then,” De Bruyne said. “Belgium have a very good team. There are dozens of teams that say we want to become the world champions.
“You have to show you have ambition as a team, as a group of players; show you want to win. Otherwise, in my opinion, you can’t win a tournament. We’re here to go as far as we possibly can, to win the tournament, and that’s the attitude we’ll go into tomorrow’s match with.”
De Bruyne described the France encounter as "one of the biggest games on the biggest stage, where everybody wants to play," but intriguingly said he felt completely at ease. Hugely gifted, and with an intelligence off the pitch to match the one he displays on it, he is certainly savvy enough to appreciate the magnitude of the moment.
“When you’re part of a World Cup it’s always now or never,” De Bruyne said. “As a player, perhaps you have the chance to take part in a World Cup or a European Championship twice or three times in a lifetime. Other competitions you have another match three days later. Here it’s different: we know we’re out if we don’t win.
"Pressure? In my view, not that much. There’s always pressure in the games we play. Obviously, probably more people will be watching this game. But ultimately I try to give the best of myself and my utmost to win the game tomorrow.”
For that, De Bruyne and Belgium know they cannot take France lightly. The 2006 world champions are looking strong for a second world title so, although his men disposed of a much-fancied Brazil in the quarter-finals, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez is wary of the French threat.
“When you’re in the semi-final of a World Cup it’s quite a unique moment in anyone’s career," he said. "You can't have a chance to switch off. When you face a team like France you know you need to concentrate for 90 minutes, that there are some special individuals who can decide the result in one action. We respect immensely the quality of France.
“This is a unique opportunity for all the team, for the whole of Belgium, and for all the hard work that has been done, not just the past two years, but in the 10, 15 years developing these young players.
"It becomes an even more special opportunity to be in a semi-final, facing France and with a real excitement about the big reward that this game is going to bring for one of these two nations.”
Updated: July 9, 2018 10:18 PM