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Controversies aside, the World Cup is stellar

Morocco’s performance raises hopes in Africa, Mid-East countries

Gus Martins

Qatar’s World Cup awarding 12 years ago might have caused controversy, but the actual tournament has brought immense pride to the Muslim and Arabic-speaking world. And the soccer has been stellar.

The reported $220 billion spent by the country to host the extravaganza has ushered in the first African country, Morocco, to reach a semifinal, taking on defending champion France. But the North African nation is representing far more than Africa. It’s a part of a regional confederation known as MENA, Middle East and North Africa, representing 18 countries and close to a half-billion people.

Throw in another billion in the rest of Africa, and they have galvanized an enormous region like never before. The team’s 1-0 victory over Portugal last Friday gave them four shutouts in five games, suffering just a self-inflicted own-goal in the tournament.

“I think Morocco deserved the win over Portugal,’’ said former New England Revolution player Jair Ribeiro, who played against several African teams two decades ago while representing Cape Verde.

“When they scored their goal, it allowed them to carry on with their plan,’’ he said. “The Portuguese didn’t seem to have a plan to counter it. They sent a lot of aimless balls into the box. The Moroccan players were physically stronger than the Portuguese, so it played right into their hands as Morocco defended brilliantly. Portugal had chances to tie the game, but Morocco were resilient, like they have been the whole tournament.’’

This Moroccan team has been a marvel, while playing a style that is generally anathema to their nature. The calling card of the North African teams is skill and spontaneity. This Moroccan team, under coach Walid Regragui, has brought a steeled, no-nonsense defensive style the “Atlas Lions” have deployed to see off Belgium, Canada, Spain while drawing Croatia.

Morocco has a population of some 37 million and a huge diaspora throughout Western Europe and the United States. Local Moroccans have assembled at Revere Beach after each successive victory. Beating France and getting to the final would set off a delirium of immense proportion.

For Portugal, which had a talented team in its own right, the major question will be whether aging superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, 37, will call it quits. His first interview after Saturday’s loss seemed to suggest he’s not ready to leave international competition, now likely giving the team’s next coach unnecessary headaches about having to include a self-centered and seemingly narcissistic superstar who demonstrates over and again he puts himself above the team.

Brazil was a World Cup winner in 1994 and 2002. They were runners-up in 1998. They haven’t gone past the quarterfinals since their last victory. But you’d think the five-time World Cup champions would have the wisdom and experience of a winning nation.

That was not the case. After scoring four straight first-half goals in the Round-of-16 against South Korea, Brazil’s players celebrated each goal with an obviously pre-rehearsed, seemingly-hedonistic, dance routine that teetered on disrespect to the opponent and said to heck with FIFA’s longtime credo of “Fair Play.’’

Some English pundits found it distasteful. It apparently was also distracting. Four days later, the jovial dancing turned into uncontrollable sobbing when they fell in the shootout to Croatia in the quarterfinal round.

After taking a lead on an overtime goal by its controversial star Neymar, who seems to draw either affection or aversion in Brazil with little middle ground, the team had to kill just four minutes against the hearty Croats, finalists in 2018, but the team lost its focus.

In the midst of some substitutions, six Brazilian players went on attack looking for a second goal. The Croatian counter-attack against a tired and spooked Brazilian defense proved fatal. Following the equalizer, Croatia went on to win comfortably in the shootout.

“That attitude is in the Brazilian culture and in their nature, but at the same time there are people who think they didn’t take it so seriously, knowing that the games ahead get more difficult,’’ said Ribeiro. “So, yes, I think they should have waited to dance in the end if they had won the tournament.’’

In first-round group play, Brazil faced Serbia and Switzerland, who each played simply to hold them off while rarely attacking. They fielded eight reserves in a 1-0 loss to Cameroon after they had already qualified.

“Croatia was (Brazil’s) stiffest test,’’ he said. “Leading up to then, their road wasn’t that challenging. After they scored, they needed to burn off just the last four minutes of the second overtime to win the game, and instead Croatia tied the game and then won in penalties. I think the coaching is to blame.’’

Brazil was in need of some good news. The tenuous health of 81-year-old national icon Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka “Pele,” remains touch-and-go as treatment for liver cancer stopped being effective. The country also has been honoring the life of its greatest singer, the lovely Gal Costa, aged 77, who passed away Nov. 9. It also had a highly fractious presidential election this fall that saw the return of liberal “Lula” da Silva regain office over anti-Marxist Jair Bolsonaro.

England’s 2-1 loss to France was marred by sub-standard officiating by Wilton Sampaio, who seemed unsure of himself throughout the game. The Brazilian was sent home following his poor performance.

“I think England were the better team and if they had won, they certainly had a team to win this tournament,’’ Ribeiro said. “This was a fantastic game. It was back-and-forth, but you’d have to say England was a bit better.’’

The English held France’s 23-year-old superstar Kylian Mbappe at bay. But Antoine Griezmann’s cross off the head of 36-year-old indispensable forward Olivier Giroud late in the second half spelled the difference. England’s Harry Kane missed a penalty shot that could have tied the score. He had already scored an earlier penalty.

Argentina returned to the semifinal since losing to Germany in the 2014 final game, 1-0. Argentina, led by the peerless Leo Messi, who had a goal and an assist in the game, beat a resilient Netherlands, who came back from down 2-0 in the final play of the second overtime.

But Argentina was not to be denied. After losing their opening game 2-1 to Saudi Arabia, the team has stormed back. Messi, who has scored four goals in five games and has two assists, has been in stellar form. The country’s best player since Diego Maradona has shown his class leading his team.

“I think losing the first game made them stronger,’’ said Ribeiro. “They were in no position to rest players. They had to dig in and fight for their lives and that meant hardly changing their lineup and getting maximum contributions from everyone.’’

He added, “Even Messi, at 35, was unable to rest, and I think that’s what strengthened them as the tournament wore on. Each game was like an elimination game, and you could see that urgency in their play. They took a 2-0 lead against the Netherlands, who came back to tie it. But once the overtime came, Argentina was dominant. When it went to penalties, you could see they were resolute, and none of their players showed any fear on their faces.’’

The soccer writers’ community lost a star reporter last week when 48-year-old Grant Wahl, a longtime Sports Illustrated scribe and currently an independent content producer in various media forms, died in Qatar Friday of cardiac arrest. Condolences go out to his loved ones.

Qatar, soccer, World Cup
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