The World Cup’s Beauty Is In The Eye Of Its Holder
10:34 AM EST on December 13, 2022
Sixty games into this World Cup, only one thing is clear: It is fun to laugh at Cristiano Ronaldo crying. OK, maybe something else is clear too: everyone is wrong, and quite often. Sure, Argentina and France were both pre-tournament favorites to make it to the semifinals, but instead of being joined by, say, Brazil and Belgium, it is the unlikely duo of Croatia (!) and Morocco (!!!) joining the big boys in the final four.
It has been a hell of a ride to get here, with the emphasis on "hell." The winter timing has wreaked havoc on players' bodies, and will continue to reverberate throughout the upcoming second half of the club seasons. The Qatar of it all has provided more human rights abuses and scoffs at the results of said human rights abuses than anyone could ever hope for. Grant Wahl, titan of American soccer journalism, died while covering the tournament. So much of what has surrounded this World Cup has been awful.
On the field, though, this has been a notably great World Cup. The group stages provided a plethora of thrills—Japan! Saudi Arabia! South freaking Korea!—and though the round of 16 didn't do much to up the ante, the quarterfinals were one of the very best rounds in the history of this quadrennial showcase. Out went Brazil, the Netherlands, England, and Portugal, in four matches that were often shocking and always gripping.
The remaining four teams may have all have the same goal—lift that dang trophy—but they do not have the same motivations. For some, it is a chance to go down in soccer history. For another, it is a chance to make up for a what could have been four years ago. And for Morocco, it is a chance to cause a cataclysmic shift in the perception of African soccer. No pressure there. With all that in mind, let's take a look at how each of those four semifinalists got here, and what is driving them to win two more games and an immortal place as the victor of this cursed edition of the most glorious tournament in sports.
Argentina is the team that most needs to win this World Cup. Entering the tournament, it was win-or-bust for the Albiceleste, and that has not changed. It starts and ends with Lionel Messi. The 35-year-old deity-in-cleats has been at the top of his game in Qatar: four goals, two assists (including the pass of the tournament), and a real claim at the Golden Ball. None of that matters, though. Nothing Argentina has done thus far will resonate if the team doesn't lift its third World Cup trophy on December 18.
This is not the most talented team of Messi's career on the national team, but it is the best as a unit. After the shock loss to Saudi Arabia in the group stage opener, Argentina has clawed through four straight do-or-die matches to arrive at the semifinals. It beat Mexico by playing poorly, it beat Poland by playing well, it almost blinked against Australia, and it survived the Netherlands in the game of the tournament to date. This isn't the most likable bunch—the post-match antics after the Netherlands quarterfinal might have been warranted, given the Dutch side's provocations, but it was still a bit rough to watch—but there's something honorable about a side with one goal in mind, and nothing to fall back on.
If Argentina, and by extension Messi, wins this tournament, it will validate the decision to uproot its entire national soccer system in 2017. It will also, in the minds of those who need to count the rings, end most debates about who the best player of all time is. Messi has always needed a World Cup trophy to win everyone over, and this is his last chance to get it. There are only two games left in Messi's World Cup career (even if Argentina loses to Croatia, there's still the third-place match), but two more victories will make all of the disappointments of his international tenure disappear. That's why Argentina needs this more than any other team, but that pressure might be what eventually overwhelms them.
Croatia is the team that would most love to win this World Cup. Sure, all four teams would love to be world champions, but Croatia is almost playing with house money. Of the remaining challengers for the crown, Croatia has the least pressure on its shoulders. It's not the best team, it doesn't have the weight of history, and it does not carry the banner for a region and even an entire continent. Instead, Croatia can make itself, through sheer strength of will, a repeat finalist in a tournament that saves that honor for the most illustrious sides: the Brazil of 1994-2002, the Netherlands of the 1970s, the West Germany of the 1980s.
For a country with a good but not sterling history as a national team, this would be monumental for Croatia. It would also give the Croatians a chance to soothe the wounds of 2018, when they clawed their way to the final via two penalty shootouts and one heroic extra time win, only to get demolished by the French. And it would elevate Luka Modric into the conversation as not just one of the best midfielders of all time, but maybe the singular best. A loss, either in the semifinals or the final, would sting, but it wouldn't invalidate what has already been a heroic journey. A trophy, on the other hand, would be the exclamation point on as impressive a run as any team outside of the game's established elite has ever put together.
France is the team that should win this World Cup. It took until the quarterfinals of this tournament for France to be at all outmatched by an opponent, and even then, the French still beat England. It took a skied Harry Kane penalty to seal it, and France was perhaps lucky to come out ahead, but if a team has to make its own luck, France is best positioned to do so. To put it another way, when the biggest weakness a team has is that one of its center backs—Dayot Upamecano—is prone to errors during the times when he's not amazing, that team probably has a great chance to win the World Cup.
Though France did lose a game—the final group stage match against Tunisia, played by France's B-team—it hasn't really been pushed to its limit yet. Even England, who played as well as anyone has against this French group at either of the last two World Cups, didn't really make France unleash its full potential. Instead, Les Bleus have been content to be as good as they have to be to win, which has booked them a ticket to the final four. It helps when Kylian Mbappé is around to score five goals and still somehow be in a debate over who France's best player has been (Antoine Griezmann has been incredible as the team's primary playmaker in attack, so he's not out of the running here).
Any of France's pre-tournament worries, particularly that of its midfield injuries to Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kanté, have been quietly shooed away. In its place is a team that has talent at every level, continuity in the system of milquetoast but effective tactician Didier Deschamps, and the tranquility that comes from having won the previous World Cup. If France were to lose either of its remaining games, it would be an upset, but it wouldn't be crushing, not when memories of the last French triumph are still so fresh in mind. And if it were to win, joining 1938 Italy and 1962 Brazil as the only teams to successfully defend a World Cup trophy, then there would be no doubting France's spot in the history of this tournament. Given the evidence of the team's previous five games, it would only be just to see that happen.
Morocco is the team whose victory in this World Cup would be the most miraculous. Everyone knows by now that Morocco is the first African team to make the semifinals, but that this was the continent's first side to make the final four is almost impossible to comprehend. The team that swapped its manager in August? The team that was drawn into the closest thing this World Cup had to a group of death, with Belgium, Croatia, and Canada? The team that had to go through tournament dark horses Spain and Portugal in the knockout rounds? That's the team that made the semifinals?
What Morocco has done in Qatar is insane. The team has been a defensive machine, but it hasn't been a boring anti-soccer side. The only goal it has conceded was an own goal against Canada in the group stage. Morocco has also aggressively sought out the opponent's net, and has looked the better side in three of its four wins (the only exception was against Spain, who would have won that game if it could, at all, score goals.) Against Portugal in the quarterfinals, Morocco fended off a barrage of dives and attacks from the Iberians, and held the lead for the entire second half without flinching. The Atlas Lions deserve to be here, going through the toughest path of any of the semifinalists, and doing it with style and wholesomeness that has made them an easy team to root for.
Still, though, they can't possibly win the whole thing, can they? Morocco's path gets even harder with France on Wednesday, but is it impossible to see them putting in another defensive masterclass and scooping up how many ever goals they need to make the final? Honestly, it's not as impossible as what Morocco has already done. There comes a point in every World Cup where the best story runs into a brick wall; it's why there hasn't been a true surprise winner in 21 previous tournaments. That has to start somewhere, and no one has been a better surprise than Morocco with two games left. If it were to lift the trophy at the end of all this, it would be a fitting end to an occasion that its players rose to meet with aplomb.