Kiss Kiss, Bye Bye
10:52 AM EST on December 11, 2022
The many and manifest sadnesses of this Qatar World Cup, which peaked with the death of the wonderfully gifted Grant Wahl on Friday, are likely to endure well after all reasonable people have grappled with their guilty consciences. It’s the strange work of the games to redeem all the ugliness that goes into the broader event. That's probably too high a bar to clear given the weight of all that dreadfulness, but there are moments that can elevate the bitter to bittersweet, and if there is a better one to be found than Morocco's Jawad El Yamiq kissing Portugal's Pepe on the head after his agonizing miss late in Morocco's 1-0 win over Portugal . . . well, there isn't. This is the sort of thing that can save the World Cup, if anything can.
Morocco reaching the semifinal of a World Cup that includes Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, and Luka Modric is glorious enough for people who like their big events with a taste of the deeply improbable, but the moment that will resonate most profoundly is this one, two minutes from the game's end. Portugal, frantic for an equalizer, received a cross from Rafael Leão to the wizened (look at his steam-emitting skull to get a better idea of what wizened means) old (he's 39, for Christ's sake) head of the wonderfully cantankerous Pepe, who nodded it just wide of the Atlas Lions' miracle-churning goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.
This was when El Yamiq decided that he had found the ideal moment to be cheeky with a guy with a reputation for ostentatious punishments, both retributive and unprovoked. In thanks for his team's good fortune, El Yamiq laid one on Pepe's head. The gesture came so far from the Bizarro World that Pepe didn't even react. He couldn't. He is a man who could kill with a single furrowed brow, but he seemingly could not process an opponent liplocking his skull to thank him for his inaccuracy, and walked away with only his stunned expression. This is either a testament to his own self-consuming agony, El Yamiq's impish brass, or perhaps both.
Imagine Zion Williamson dropping one of these on Chris Paul rather than the 360 dunk he employed to punctuate New Orleans' 128-117 win over Phoenix on Friday. You think that, instead of the ensuing hyperactive milling about, that game wouldn’t have ended with punches being thrown from multiple hands? Imagine Dallas' Tyler Seguin dropping face on Ottawa's Brady Tkachuk after his overtime game-winner Thursday. You think sticks aren't getting swung while cops bide their time and wait for a calmer moment to step in? You think the Las Vegas Raiders wouldn't have exerted their (many, many) frustrations upon Baker Mayfield if the brand new Los Angeles Rams quarterback had lipped up on Maxx Crosby after his game-winning touchdown pass to Van Jefferson Thursday night? They'd still be fighting this morning over juice and sausage rolls.
The story of Morocco's unforeseen advancement to the semifinals is a testament to the value of a seamless team playing in concert against its betters; they celebrated by dancing on the final moments of Cristiano Ronaldo's meaningful career. The Moroccans made their moment as a solid unit of bright and indefatigable folks never bowing to the inevitability of the more famous, though special citations can be issued to Bounou, and superb midfielders Somyat Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi.
But the lasting memory is and will be El Yamiq and his impudent lips. There may never be another moment so puckish, so comic, so unreservedly pure. This is because the moment itself is so great, but also because from this moment forward losing players will at least be nominally aware that there might be a victor lurking nearby with a penchant for mocking osculation. Testosterone being the frothy hate juice it is, the next kiss we see will probably be the precipitant for a hellacious brawl in which the offending yap may end up flapping about on the ground after being ripped from its owner in a flash of maniacal rage. That Pepe somehow wasn't the author of that retribution will be a perpetual bewilderment, because he would be among the likeliest of perpetrators. But the kiss landed, and Morocco is on to the semifinals, and so we will just have to wait.
So whatever else you take from this World Cup, be it joy or sadness or outrage, there will also be that kiss, and more's the pity that Wahl wasn't there to write it. It's a story that many will tell, but one that he was best built to write, and most likely to appreciate. So we'll appreciate it for him.