DC Edit | Cup of hope: 4 amazing teams square off at WC
Notwithstanding the ‘Black Pearl’ Pele’s prophecy that an African team would win the football World Cup before the end of the old millennium, none would have dared predict that an African nation’s team would be in the semi-finals in 2022. Morocco, now adapted as the grand triple representative of the Arab, Muslim, and African worlds, is in the last four and people from as far as Rabat and Casablanca are joining in celebrating its progress.
There is something about football that seems to distil the feelings of millions of people into a united and national aspiration, besides the game becoming a metaphor of each country’s sporting ambition. Despair and hope take turns as fancied teams crash out while an underdog like Morocco, feisty in defence and ultra-ambitious in breakaway attack, basks in the limelight even as the team has come this far conceding a field goal only to Canada.
For England, the eternally ambitious nation which also invented the game, slipping into its role as football’s tragic hero is eternally only about one knockout match away. It has been left agonising over what might have been had only its most prodigious goal scorer, Harry Kane, converted a penalty that may have stretched its stay in Qatar at least for another half hour of intense, even controversial, football exchanges. In the end, the referee became more of a villain than Kane who shot over the goalpost.
France’s free sprinting Kylian Mbappe, whose father is from Cameroon and mother from Algeria, may have been bottled up by Kyle Walker in battle, but France won the war, settling the game in full time itself rather than risk the lottery of penalty shootouts. The agony of messed up penalties may have been felt the most by Brazil, installed tournament favourites by the pundits as well as bookmakers. But then they paid the penalty for not holding on to the lead Neymar Jr had given them with just 15 minutes to go on the clock against the doughty Croatians.
The multicultural composition of the players representing the defending champion France who could be African, French, and Muslim at the same time, is sufficient to counter the arguments of their political far-right that has tended to demonise this aspect of sporting prowess. The coloniser versus the colonised is a nice narrative building up as France takes on Morocco, for long its protectorate.
Argentina carries not only the pride of Latin American football and the ambition of one of the game’s greatest players in Lionel Messi to top off five appearances at the finals with a Cup victory but also the angst even winners can feel about the exasperating standard of refereeing. Not even the precision of the VAR system rescues the arbiters with the whistle who take charge of the very physical game of soccer.
France, seemingly on cruise control despite a curious loss to Tunisia in a group game will take on Morocco, brought this far by a peach of an opportunistic goal from Youssef e-Nesyri that floored Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo who came off the bench to try and live up to his exalted reputation. Croatia, with creativity on the field still luminous in the stalwart Luka Modric, will look for a second successive appearance in a final after Moscow, but it will face Argentina, which once lost a final to Germany in penalties, and looks up to a charged-up Messi to take them further in Qatar.
Fans fortunate enough to have tickets to key games in Doha, and fans who have been “couch potatoes” for close to a month now can look forward to steaming action in the greatest game on turf.