The main event
One of the most exhilarating, yet also brutal, things about a World Cup is the way it reaches a crescendo. The games become less frequent, from four in a day at the start to four a week at the end, but they are increasingly imbued with a savage jeopardy. Careers are defined, for richer and poorer, potential champions are bumped off without warning or sentiment like Janet Leigh in Psycho, and before you know it there are only a few teams left standing.
After the most wildly emotional set of quarter-finals in World Cup history, we now know the semi-final line-up for Qatar 2022. Argentina will play Croatia on Tuesday evening, with the defending champions France meeting Morocco 24 hours later. Two teams from Europe, one from South America and one – uniquely, gloriously – from Africa.
All four teams are marvellous, all are flawed – but, most importantly for a tournament that has been high on narrative from day one, all provide a great story that doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, need any hyperbole. Croatia or Morocco would be the first new world champions since Spain in 2010. France would be the first team to retain the trophy since 1962. And an Argentina victory would be the first in Lionel Messi’s lifetime, never mind his football career.
The opening semi-final is a meeting of the last two runners-up: Croatia lost to France in the final in 2018, Argentina to Germany in 2014. Both teams are still captained by the Golden Ball winner in each of those tournaments, Luka Modric and Messi. Apart from their initials, they don’t have much in common these days. Modric dictates games yet keeps a low profile; Messi is now more likely to decorate them, often sublimely, and can leave half the world weak at the knees with a simple body swerve. Only one of them will get another shot at a World Cup final.
To reach the final Argentina will have to do something that has proved extremely difficult in the last two competitions – put one in Croatia’s brain. Zlatko Dalic’s side are the unkillables of world football, a hard-wearing group of extra-time addicts who have had the best view from the precipice ever since Romelu Lukaku started missing sitters in their final group game against Belgium.
Croatia’s laboured attacking performances are more forgivable because of their agelessness, their resilience and their Modric. He is the rarest of things, a footballer whose humility is commensurate with his talent. Croatia embarrassed Argentina 3-0 in the group stage of the last World Cup, when keeper Willy Caballero had an infamous shocker. Both qualified but the result opened up a much clearer path to the final for Croatia – and gave Argentina a stinker of a last-16 tie against France.
If Croatia are indefatigable, then Morocco appear unbreakable. Their team have defied injury and logic to become the first African team ever to reach the World Cup semi-finals. Whatever happens from here, a part of Qatar 2022 will always belong to Morocco. Not only are they unbeaten, they haven’t even been behind at any stage of the tournament. The Atlas Lions have bitten their way through a map of Europe, beating Belgium, Spain and Portugal – but France would be the tastiest of the lot.
Maybe Pelé will see belated fulfilment of his prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by the year 2000. Or maybe France will become the first side since Brazil in 1962 to retain the World Cup. There is still a good chance of Kylian Mbappé or Messi making this tournament their own, even if comparisons to Diego Maradona in 1986 should be banned on grounds of sacrilege (and yes, we’ve been guilty of this too).
France needed all their experience and entitlement to withstand England’s best performance at a major tournament this century. And though they are deservedly favourites, even without at least four of their best XI, France still do not feel like a sure thing. They have never met Morocco at a major tournament – no, we’re not counting the Hassan II Cup – but their proximity and political relationship will add another layer of intensity to an already seismic game.
There’s something for every neutral, never mind those with the fortune to still have a partisan interest. Messi, Modric, Mbappé and Morocco: take your pick, they’re all great stories.
Tributes have poured in from across the world of football for Grant Wahl after the American journalist died on Friday. Sports Illustrated wrote: “We were proud to call him a colleague and friend for two decades – no writer in the history of SI has been more passionate about the sport he loved.”
Writing for the Guardian, Sonja Cori Missio praised Wahl’s support for aspiring writers: “for anyone who reached out: he pulled them up, treated them like an equal, and offered whatever he could.” Billie Jean King paid tribute to Wahl for “using his platform to elevate those whose stories needed telling”while the USA captain, Tyler Adams, said: “Grant’s was a giant voice in soccer that has tragically fallen silent.” NMc
Morocco really could win this World Cup
After Croatia’s comeback victory in the 2018 semi-final, Luka Modric accused the English media of disrespect in the build-up. Whether or not there was any basis to Modric’s complaints, there will be no danger of anyone underestimating Morocco in the last four, particularly after yesterday’s historic shut-out of Portugal. Morocco’s defensive discipline and collective spirit has repeatedly demonstrated that teamwork trumps individual brilliance – so it was appropriate that the increasingly disruptive Cristiano Ronaldo was left in tears by the Atlas Lions’ rearguard action at Al Thumama Stadium. The continent of Africa finally has a World Cup semi-finalist, 12 years after Ghana were controversially denied by Uruguay. It would now hardly be a surprise for them to go all the way. LMc
Selfless Giroud deserves the spotlight
Olivier Giroud would have been within his rights to feel dismayed last week, when he finally broke his country’s goalscoring record only to see his thunder stolen by a breathtaking performance from Kylian Mbappé. On Saturday night the limelight was all his after a second-half winner that capped a performance of quiet excellence from the veteran target man. Giroud was a latecomer to elite-level football and his playing style – subtlety over speed, quick thinking over quick feet – is one that lends itself to getting better with age. There remains something deeply impressive in the way he has carved out a status as both the selfless striker who enables his glitzier teammates to excel and the reliable no-frills goalscorer who gets his team over the line when it counts. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Giroud, who plays without ego or entitlement, has sent his side into the semi-finals while Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar have departed the stage in tears. AH
Argentina stake claim as sorest winners
In the aftermath of their fiery penalty shootout triumph over the Netherlands, Argentina have drawn criticism and acclaim for their spectacular bad grace in victory. Whether it was Nicolás Otamendi cupping his ears towards the heartbroken Dutch players after the decisive spot-kick, Emi Martínez telling Louis van Gaal to “keep his mouth shut” in his post-match press conference or Lionel Messi having it out with Wout Weghorst live on air, the Albiceleste seemed more concerned with rubbing salt in their opponents’ wounds than enjoying their success. Their reaction has rekindled the culture war between those who believe in sportsmanship, gentlemanly virtues and the Corinthian spirit and those who revel in anarchy, the dark arts and the eldritch magic known as shithousery. When Argentina face Croatia, expect off-the-ball antics, beleaguered officials and a bitter fallout whether they win or lose. WM
In a reminder of the extreme limitations of corporate solidarity, brands are set to spend between £85m and £100m on advertising around the World Cup across all UK media, while largely shelving their progressive credentials. Despite previously signalling support for LGBTQ+ rights, there has been a deafening silence from some of the biggest multinational companies sponsoring the tournament on human rights and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in Qatar. “The hypocrisy is ridiculous,” according to one ad industry executive. “Whether it be organic farming, saving the oceans, women’s or gay rights, mental health, knife crime – these sorts of campaigns are everywhere. Many of the brands advertising during the World Cup are super-progressive – but none of that applies when it comes to Qatar.” WM
Even as three more countries are shaken by quarter-final exits, the aftershock from Brazil’s penalty shootout defeat to Croatia rumbles on. O Globo had the word “frustration” splashed across its front page on Saturday, lamenting “Tite’s wrong decisions, the lack of accuracy in attack and Neymar not taking his penalty right away” as the main factors in the favourites’ unexpected exit. CNN Brazil noted that “with the possibility of a sixth championship being postponed to the World Cup in 2026, Brazil will equal an important, but uncomfortable, mark of 24 years without being crowned world champion.” Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president-elect, struck a more magnanimous tone, tweeting: “Brazil made an effort, Neymar scored a beautiful goal and the team deserved more. My compliments to the players and coaching staff. Let’s go ahead because in life we can never give up.” WM
The internet reacts
Morocco’s victory over Portugal meant that Africa will finally have a representative in the World Cup’s final four, and the joy on social media was unconfined. Shakira, whose 2010 theme song “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” belongs on any World Cup playlist, was quick to join the party.
Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo’s 4K tears at the final whistle completed a hat-trick of sad-face departures likely to warm the hearts of neutrals.
Within minutes of England crashing out, #ITVCurse was trending on Twitter, as the jinx that looked to have been lifted against Senegal returned. Kylian Mbappé was kept largely quiet during the game, but still managed to make an impact on social media as his reaction to Harry Kane’s miss went viral. NMc
And finally …
As if the last few weeks haven’t been miserable enough for Manuel Neuer after Germany exited this World Cup at the group stage, the Bayern Munich goalkeeper has been ruled out for the rest of the season after breaking his leg while skiing.
“What can I say, the end of the year could definitely have gone better … while I was trying to clear my head with a ski tour, I broke my lower leg,” Neuer wrote on Instagram. “Yesterday’s surgery went very well. Many thanks to the medical team! However, it hurts to know that the current season is over for me.” WM