There is no point in pretending otherwise: this was not about Croatia. It was all about Argentina and Lionel Messi, and specifically Messi’s quest to finally win the World Cup and take it a step further than he did for his team in 2014 and match Diego Maradona and his long rivalry with Cristiano. Ronaldo and everyone else.
If you were to lay out all the Messi-centric narratives that will unfold between now and Sunday, you could build a bridge from Doha to Buenos Aires and back.
And yet, at the end of this World Cup semifinal, when Argentina’s players linked arms and jumped up and down in front of their adoring fans, it was really a different team, different fans, different emotions. other end of the square. Croatia didn’t have too much agency in this game, but their presence here is still history.
For what it’s worth, Croatia started this game well, dominating possession for the first half hour but failing to create anything. Zlatko Daličius later complained that his team “wasn’t specific in their actions”. But when Argentina increased their intensity, took control of the game and tore through the Croatian defence, they had no answer. Their loss to Brazil on penalties in the quarter-finals was one of the biggest results in Croatia’s history, a reminder of the remarkable patience, nerve and intelligence of this team. Unfortunately, they couldn’t replicate it here.
What mattered was not so much the tired performance of the Croatians, but their World Cup campaign. They reached the semi-finals for the third time, only their sixth World Cup since independence. England have only reached the semi-finals three times and have played in World Cups since 1950. Croatia will have a chance to match their 1998 victory on Saturday. bronze medal. Its players will strive for it.
And even if that match is Croatia vs. Morocco, as it likely will be, it’s still worth remembering what those two teams meant here, pointing to the true value of international football. Even in this World Cup.
A distinctive feature of this World Cup is its affordability. That’s why we’re all here in Doha in the middle of December, because Qatar had more money and ambition than anyone else. They saw it, they wanted it, and they got it. Not even necessarily to improve or “wash” the image of Qatar, but simply because of its high visibility around the world.
Soccer is a marketable sport and Qatar has bought a lot of it. An estimated $200 billion has now been spent on the World Cup. You can see it in stadiums, fan parks, bus parks, thousands of tour guides in purple jackets. Almost all popular, reliable or influential people are now in the tent. Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klinsmann work for FIFA. Gary Neville, Kaka, Guti, Ronald De Boer and Alessandro del Piero are on BeIN Sport. David Beckham graces colorful Qatar museum and exhibition ticket ads telling tourists to ‘live it all up’.
And then Neymar and Messi sit at the top of the pyramid. Neymar is the face of Qatar National Bank. Messi and Neymar are promoting Ooredoo (they have an ad for the telco where they sit on a sofa and Beckham eats popcorn). These ambassadors are now Qatar’s favorite sons: Hassan Al-Haydos’ 172 caps for Qatar’s national team doesn’t mean he gets equal billing with Messi in front of Ooredoo stores.
It is impossible to feel anything other than deep gratitude to be able to watch Messi play football like a god here and dance Argentina to the final. But in the back of your mind is a faint sense of disappointment that Messi, the man who made this World Cup such a spectacle, is not only an employee of a Qatari-owned club, but also the public face of Qatari brands. said nothing about his relationship with Saudi Arabia.
So while so much about this World Cup and modern football in general has been bought or tarnished, the presence of Croatia here in Lusail and Morocco in Al Bayt on Wednesday is a reminder of something important. That even here, at the desert climax of the $200 billion circus, tournament soccer retains its resilient unaffordability.
Until now, there are no secrets about how club football works: the richest teams buy the best players, build the best facilities, hire the best coaches and win all the trophies. The same forces that brought you this World Cup brought you Manchester City four league titles in five years and Paris Saint-Germain eight titles in ten.
However, international football is not like that for two obvious reasons. First, countries cannot buy and sell players and have to make do with the players they have. Yes, countries can be smart about naturalizations, but it’s not the same as the transfer market.
Second, international football is not played over a 38-league season, where methods and patterns can be repeated until mastery. The one-legged knock-out tournament, where everything is decided on the night, remains the format that offers the most randomness and drama.
Each of these is necessary, but not sufficient, to make international football what it is. Put the two together and you get something that’s hard to plan, predict, formulaize, and — most importantly — hard to buy.
Being a rich country that produces many good footballers is an advantage. The last four winners (France, Germany, Spain, Italy) are large, rich European countries with success stories to prove this. France may retain their title on Sunday, the first country to do so since Brazil 60 years ago.
But at the same time, if international tournaments were fully bought and success correlated with population, wealth, football resources and investment, the semi-finalists would look very different. This could be Germany, Spain, Brazil, England, Italy, Portugal or the Netherlands. And if tournaments were as financially predetermined as the club game, you wouldn’t expect Croatia to return to the semi-finals after reaching the final last time, or Morocco to reach another semi-final. But they both succeeded.
How Croatia, with a population of less than four million, has mastered the tournament over two different generations is an example for smaller countries around the world. Obviously they have a fantastic production line, but in 1998 generation had more attacking talent than this team.
Dalic arrived in Qatar with good players, one all-time great Luka Modric, but there was not much firepower in the final third. The whole point of international coaching is to find a solution, and he did as much as he could.
They played to their strengths throughout this tournament, playing a crafty, patient, level game, waiting for their opponents to make mistakes and always ready for a penalty shootout.
It got them out of a tight group ahead of Japan and Brazil, a team whose potential semi-final against Argentina would have been a dream for FIFA, Qatar and many of their supporters. Instead, when Brazil went home, they fell. Some may read this as a morality tale.
But now Croatia is out and the hopes of the smaller countries are invested in Morocco. Their presence here is even more surprising than Croatia’s.
Morocco had only made it out of the World Cup group stage once before (1986) and only won the African Cup of Nations once (1976), but they played with fearless confidence throughout the tournament. Sometimes the draw opens up for smaller teams. Morocco drew with Croatia, beat Belgium, knocked out Spain and then Portugal. They could hardly have played a more difficult spell.
“Everyone in life has the right to dream,” as Daličius said before this match, before the end of the World Cup. “2018 The Croatian team made this dream a reality for all small countries and we gave other countries the right to have these dreams. Everyone else is following our lead. Morocco is no exception, they beat Belgium, Spain and Portugal and have the right to dream.”
Morocco have some fantastic players, but the broad qualities that make them good are the same as Croatia. Unity. Pride. A clear game plan. Loyalty to the manager. A pragmatic approach based on the strengths of the players you have. A little luck or nerves.
These are the things that money can’t buy, but they can still make a difference in the football of the tournament. These are the qualities that have taken Croatia and Morocco so far. Whatever you understandably think about the moral state of this World Cup, the only space that can remain pristine or unsullied is that space between the four white lines around the pitch.
(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)