The main event
Lisandro Martínez v Raphaël Varane, Leandro Paredes v Adrien Rabiot, Cristian Romero v Hugo Lloris and Nahuel Molina v Antoine Griezmann. These are subplots we can look forward to when Argentina face France in the final on Sunday. While everyone is thinking about Lionel Messi v Kylian Mbappé, there are plenty of clubmates preparing to do battle for the right to be champions of the planet, the entire planet.
In theory, Martínez and Varane could team up as a centre-back pairing for Manchester United’s Carabao Cup tie against Burnley next Wednesday. You could imagine the relationship would be somewhat soured by the result in Qatar on Sunday. Admittedly, one must hope the pair are offered a few days off by Erik ten Hag rather than immediately returning to the freezing cold of north-west England, to make sure they are fresh and available to play Nottingham Forest on 27 December.
Whenever these various pairs are forced to join up, there might be even more frost than on an English club’s training ground. Sunday’s final will define careers for many involved, as half will become the select few to win the World Cup and the others will become footnotes on Wikipedia pages. Whatever the outcome, the result will have a lasting impact on individuals. Those that go back buoyed by triumph might not feel the immediate physical and emotional toll the past month in Qatar has placed on them until much later, while the losers will be left to rue missing out on potentially their one (or in France’s case, another) chance of glory.
The Argentina and France squads will want their starriest of star men to shine in the final and bring them glory. But those without a No 10 on the back of their shirts will also need to be at their best to earn glorious gold. They are a group of world-class players often overlooked in the drama of the fact the Qataris have funded club moves for Messi and Mbappé, not to mention their incomparable qualities.
Paris Saint-Germain have two players in the final squads, whereas Atlético Madrid have four and Sevilla, Bayern Munich and Juventus three each. The narrative will be strong for M&M but Villarreal, Benfica and Marseille also have two individuals involved. River Plate, Rennes, Aston Villa and West Ham could all welcome back players with the shiniest of medals. It would be the second time the Hammers have provided a backup goalkeeper for a France World Cup triumph. Bernard Lama, the great leggings-wearing shot-stopper, was Fabian Barthez’s understudy in 1998 and this time Alphonse Areola has spent the entire tournament in reserve. And to think, people still keep banging on about 1966 in east London.
If Argentina win, Real Madrid and Barcelona would be left without a reigning world champion, while Sevilla would have a trio of kings, a celebration of their recruitment rather than the bottomless pit on offer to PSG. If France come out on top, it would see Monaco and Marseille with two gold champions apiece.
Olivier Giroud has gone from loan spells in France’s third tier to the top of the game, and potentially a second World Cup winner’s medal around his neck. Argentina’s Franco Armani moved to Colombia after years in Argentina’s second and third tier, playing top-level football there after struggling to break through in his homeland. The goalkeeper applied for Colombian citizenship and was close to receiving a call-up but eventually returned home to leave him, aged 36, 90 minutes away from winning the World Cup. Beyond the headlines, there will be some very enjoyable stories. WU
Morocco make their wider point
The huge support enjoyed by Morocco (and Tunisia and Saudi Arabia) this past month may not have itself vindicated the decision to stage this World Cup in Qatar – nothing can, given Qatar’s prior human rights record – but it has strengthened the case for holding the tournament in that part of the world. Morocco has bid four times, missing out narrowly for 1994, more emphatically in 1998 and 2006, and contentiously in 2010 (with some reports claiming it had accrued more votes than South Africa). Of course, the demands and expense of staging a modern World Cup make it prohibitive for too many nations, but that’s more an argument for Fifa scaling down its requirements a notch. This year’s World Cup has at least shown us that an Arab-world tournament wouldn’t want for a proper football culture, on and off the pitch. TD
Third is not nowhere for Croatia or Morocco
England fans may recall a submissive loss to Belgium four years ago in the third-place playoff. Brazil chucked it in, just about, eight years ago, against the Netherlands. The match can be curiously uncompetitive though perhaps this Saturday’s may buck recent trends. Morocco can further burnish their standing, while Croatia were delighted to claim third at France 98 and, after being runners-up in 2018, can make it three tournaments from a possible seven with podium finishes. Their coach, Zlatko Dalic, has confirmed most of 2022’s squad will not play in the next World Cup. While Josko Gvardiol, 20, will be around next time, it represents a last stand for a collection of 30-somethings that includes Luka Modric. Plenty on the line for both teams, though mental and physical fatigue will play a role. JB
More than three dozen Nepali civil society groups have called on the Fifa president Gianni Infantino to “stop looking the other way” while migrant workers are denied compensation after having “suffered abuses in Qatar”. In an open letter to Infantino, the organisations demanded compensation for workers who they said had suffered abuse, and families who have lost loved ones. “The stories of stolen wages and broken dreams are part of our everyday life,” the letter read. “We are far too familiar with images of coffins arriving at Tribhuvan International airport. We therefore call on you, president Infantino, to stop looking the other way while the citizens of our country – and all other nationalities – are denied their rights.”
Le Matin in Morocco was pleased that Antoine Griezmann had noted “the complexity of the match”, and said the national side “will still be able to end its memorable campaign on a high note on Saturday, during the ‘little final’ against Croatia”. But dignitaries played a large part in coverage of the semi-final. Le Matin also noted that King Abdullah II of Jordan, the Emir of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and the US ambassador to Morocco, Puneet Talwar, had all “expressed their pride in the achievement of the Atlas Lions” on Twitter.
Hespress reported that Morocco’s King Mohammed VI spoke to president Emmanuel Macron after the match to congratulate him on France’s win. Mehdi Hitane wrote that the team were “heralded as the most inspiring campaign of the 2022 World Cup” and “were met with mass respect and admiration for an inspirational journey.”
Al Bayane was keen to lay the team’s success at the door of the King himself, who it praised for the creation of the Mohammed VI Football Academy, and for “the particular and permanent attention [he] has never ceased to surround the sports sector in general and the practice of football in particular”.
There was still concern over the fans who hadn’t been able to get there, with Assabah saying that the late cancellation of flights had come “like a thunderbolt to many who dreamed of attending the semi-final”. Their verdict was that the national team departed the competition with “its head held high”, and on Thursday lunchtime their website was leading with the fact that US president Joe Biden had watched the match alongside prime minister Aziz Akhannouch. MB
The internet reacts
Videos of celebrations with teams returning to their hotels have become ubiquitous in Qatar, but there was one nice point of note in France’s latest: Adrien Rabiot was ruled out their semi-final by illness but can be seen popping up at the 1m 02s mark.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press has been in Rosario, the city in Argentina where Lionel Messi grew up, for a short report with its residents.
And finally …
Those big-name former players that TV viewers have seen lolling in the plush seats at matches must now sing for their suppers. Or at least play some football. With no more football until Saturday, the Fifa content-delivery machine has knocked up an all-star tournament.
Starting on Thursday and played over two days, the Fifa Legends Cup will, to quote: “feature eight teams, 18 matches, and nearly 100 Fifa legends across two days of pre-Fifa World Cup™ final fun.” World Cup winners Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Cafu, Francesco Totti, and Kaká lead the names, though less successful men’s World Cup players such as John Terry and Didier Drogba, and female stars including Emma Byrne and Kristine Lilly are also competing in 30-minute matches at Doha’s tennis centre.
Calling teams African Lions, Northern Bears, East Tigers, Arab Falcons, European Wolves, South American Panthers, European Dragons and South American Eagles is a naming convention to remind cricket fans of the dreaded Hundred. “Football is about joy, about smiles, about fun,” gushed Gianni Infantino in rolling out this latest wheeze. JB