Moscow: For 37 games, the one certainty at this World Cup had been goals. Every game had produced at least a powerful header, a slick backheel, a well-shaped free kick. Mexican goals and Brazilian goals and lots and lots of Russian, Belgian and English goals.
Every team had at least one, save Costa Rica and Peru. And then the Peruvians put two past Australia to join the club on their way out the door on Tuesday, leaving only Costa Rica with 90 minutes to go to break the seal.
But through it all, the tournament had not produced a single scoreless tie — until Tuesday, when France and Denmark slogged through 90 torpid and scoreless minutes at the Luzhniki Stadium here, and the streak — the longest without a 0-0 tie to start a World Cup in its history — was over.
Not that the French, or the Danes for that matter, will complain. Their 0-0 draw, combined with Peru’s 2-0 win over Australia, sent both France and Denmark through to the knockout round.
France, the group winner, will play the Group D runner-up — potentially Argentina — on Saturday in Kazan. Denmark may have gotten the better of the bargain, though: an extra day of rest, a shorter trip and possibly an easier game, on the easier side of the bracket, in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday. That may explain why it seemed so content with its lot.
A first-half of rare chances gave way to a second half with almost none. By the hour mark, the crowd of 78,000 plus had turned on both teams, whistling loudly when first France, and then Denmark, shuffled the ball around midfield showing little intent. When Antoine Griezmann, France’s best scoring threat, went off for the substitute Nabil Fekir in the 68th minute, the crowd greeted his departure with more jeers.
The match had promised much better: France had been annoyed by some pre-World Cup digs by Denmark’s coach, Age Hareide, who has dismissed its players as “nothing special” and “unable to play as a team” in an interview comparing this France team to the country’s 1998 World Cup champions. He had even taken a shot at France’s star midfielder Paul Pogba, joking that he spent far more time on his hairstyles than he should.
“It is not nice for him to say that,” France’s coach, Didier Deschamps, had told the journalists a day before the game, adding: “My players know and remember what he said.”
And in addition to that motivation, the French had seemed to find their footing with two wins, and Denmark could have won the group outright with a victory. It even came out with more fire, as Martin Braithwaite twice sliced through into the penalty area on the right.
But without Pogba and Kylian Mbappé to press the attack — they were held out of the lineup by Deschamps — and with Peru taking out the Australians early in Sochi, the game in Moscow quickly descended into what appeared to be a willing stalemate, the kind of match remembered for the play of France’s pint-size midfield destroyer, N’Golo Kanté, not goal-creators like Griezmann and Denmark’s Christian Eriksen.
And so they danced instead. And when Denmark ran up the white flag for real, passing between its center backs for a full 30 seconds in the 85th minute, the boos and whistles were louder than the anticipatory cheers for the anthems two hours earlier. But sometimes fans don’t get what they want.