Fact: The World Cup semifinals start on Tuesday.
Fact: Too much is happening.
You can’t keep up with it all. No one can keep up with it all. There’s no shame in this. The World Cup is a tangled, thousand-headed hydra of story lines. You read one article and a hundred more appear in its place. Fifty million people have an opinion on Domagoj Vida’s hair. Entire subcultures arise to vandalize the Wikipedia pages of Brazilian referees. We’re starting a commune on the edit tab. These are the best years of our lives.
What’s going on? I hear you asking. How can I, a regular person, a normie, not some kind of soccer savant, get caught up in time to watch the end of the tournament?
Excellent question. Here’s how.
Reliving the Quarterfinals
An incredible two days of games. Best ever World Cup quarterfinals? It’s on the table. We had two matches go to penalties, two seismic upsets, multiple near brawls. One of the greatest players of all time taunted one of the greatest coaches of all time. England found a way to lose on penalties in a match that didn’t even go to penalties. Wild two days of games. Let’s break it down.
Croatia 1, Brazil 1 (Croatia wins 4-2 on penalties). Shocking upset. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. Brazil, with its lithe army of bleach-blond Bolsonaristas (and also Richarlison, who rules), was the tournament favorite, but Croatia finds a way. Replace “life” with “Croatia” and this is actually top-notch soccer analysis:
In the second half of extra time, Neymar and his terrible politics scored one of the prettiest goals of the tournament to put Brazil up 1-0. Game over, right? Wrong. You think Luka Modric is impressed by a pretty goal? You think Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic is impressed by your little moves? Gaze upon this man:
This powder-blue king and his tufted sofa scoff at your elegant passing. You want elegance? Buy that Chesterfield. Croatia last made the World Cup final all of one World Cup ago. These are men who have gone deep into the abyss and come back with a fern and some pastel tracksuits. They’re unfaze-able.
Bruno Petkovic equalized in the 117th minute. Livakovic blocked the first penalty. Four straight Croatian players buried their kicks. Hello, semifinals. World Cup chaos theory: A butterfly flaps its wings in Zagreb and a tornado wipes out one of the top teams in the world.
Argentina 2, Netherlands 2 (Argentina wins 4-3 on penalties). Hoo boy. Everybody got good and mad during this one. Eighteen yellow cards (!). Benches cleared a couple of times, which you don’t see every day in soccer. Soccer players are typically either too delicate to fight or too hard to fight without being arrested for murder. For all the shoving, though, this Lionel Messi assist was still the most brutal act of violence I’ve ever witnessed during a World Cup:
My guy no-looked that pass through six defenders. Nahuel Molina didn’t so much score the goal as say amen to the miracle.
Messi then notched a penalty. Argentina was up 2-0 in the 83rd minute, when the Dutch substitute Wout Weghorst briefly went supernova and scored two goals to force extra time. Why Weghorst has never done anything remotely like this when coming off the bench for my Fantasy Premier League team remains unclear at press time.
Penalties, once again. Emiliano Martínez, the Argentine keeper, blocked two. Argentina went through. Scenes ensued, including one of Messi openly taunting legendary Dutch manager Louis van Gaal, who had disrespected Messi (according to Messi) before the match by saying he doesn’t help Argentina when he doesn’t have the ball. My take: he’s decent when he does have it.
Morocco 1, Portugal 0. You’ve seen the video of Cristiano Ronaldo crying in the tunnel, right? Let’s watch the video of Cristiano Ronaldo crying in the tunnel.
What’s your favorite part? Mine is the bit where Cristiano Ronaldo walks down the tunnel, crying.
By many standards, no player’s had a worse time in Qatar than Ronaldo. He ended his contract with Manchester United. He’s yet to attract any Champions League clubs. He got benched by Portugal. He appeared only as a second-half substitute in the defeat that probably ended his World Cup career. Nightmare, right? Then you read that Al-Nassr FC wants to pay him £200 million per season to play in Saudi Arabia, and you remember that “bad” is a relative word. Sometimes it means “good.”
Let’s talk about Morocco. The Atlas Lions do not know fear. Morocco just eliminated the entire Iberian peninsula from this tournament. Morocco beat its former colonizer, Spain, on penalties. (Yassine Bounou, the Moroccan goalkeeper, blocked two shots during the shootout; remember, that’s a Spain team that crushed Costa Rica 7-0.) Morocco beat Portugal without even needing penalties. (Remember, that’s a Portugal team that crushed Switzerland 6-1.) Next, Morocco gets to play its other former colonizer, France, for a chance to complete the re-enactment of its own liberation.
No one expected Morocco to be here. Morocco is the first African team ever to make the semifinals of a World Cup. Croatia over Brazil was an “upset.” Morocco over Spain and Portugal is some 16-seed March Madness madness. I’m so excited about this team I need an Advil PM to come out of hyperspace. Look at this filial majesty:
احتفال سفيان بوفال ووالدته من أجمل اللقطات في المونديال ❤️❤️pic.twitter.com/yNuUSW4NMV— SIR AHMED (@midopido21) December 10, 2022
Who should you look out for when Morocco plays? Well, there’s Bounou, who goes by Bono, unfortunately. He’s let in only one shot during the tournament so far, and that was a goal Morocco scored on itself. There’s Hakim Ziyech, the Chelsea winger, who scored the funniest goal of the World Cup, against Canada:
Morocco strikes first vs. Canada! Hakim Ziyech pounces after Milan Borjan’s giveaway gaffe, and the Atlas Lions have a dream start as they try to secure a knockout berth— SI Soccer (@si_soccer) December 1, 2022
(via @FoxSoccer) pic.twitter.com/A2lneccyxH
There’s also the crowd, which will be furiously loud in its support of a team the whole Arab world has adopted. That’s not your tea coming to a boil, that’s the crowd whistling every time the other team touches the ball.
Did I mention that this is the first time an African team has made it past the quarterfinals at the World Cup? Morocco’s gone from also-ran to tournament lore in less than four weeks. Incredible.
France 2, England 1. I’m not going to make fun of England here. The lads did their best against the defending world champs. They won the xG battle. (Soccer is the only sport that took “if ifs and buts were candy and nuts” and made it an actual stat.) They bossed the game for long stretches. Maybe not, like, Churchill-level bossed, but definitely more than Liz Truss–level. I’d say William Pitt the Younger–level, but he had a better record against the French.
Still, a good show from the chaps. I truly believed that Kylian Mbappé was going to leave the stadium with Kyle Walker’s soul and possibly his wallet. That didn’t happen. I truly believed that Harry Kane was going to miss a penalty, and OK, yeah, that did happen, but at least he made one first. Bukayo Saka remains a treat to watch. If random variance breaks six inches the other way on one Harry Maguire header or Marcus Rashford’s last-second daisy-cutter of a free kick, we’d be talking about a whole different match.
Still, France. Woof. They’re good. The kryptonite of this team for many years was that they all quietly hated each other (sometimes they loudly hated each other). Now they’re … friends? Colleagues? Tender companions? No one told us to expect this, and frankly, it’s upsetting. French players keep hugging … warmly. When Olivier Giroud scored what turned out to be the winning goal against England, the other guys seemed—yeesh—sincerely happy for him.
With any other team, you love to see it, but with France, it just feels wrong. Mbappé has been romping through this World Cup with supreme Meryl Streep Doing Community Theater energy—the talent so vast, the stage so small. I’m not sure how anyone beats a France team that boasts both Mbappé and basic human affection. If I’m Morocco, I’m planting a story in the press about Antoine Griezmann hiring a wizard to curse Ousmane Dembélé today. (Everyone will believe it; this is the kind of stuff French players do.)
Previewing the Semis
Argentina-Croatia. Messi versus Modric. Martínez versus Livakovic. A group of Argentine players that clearly want to get into a fight versus a group of Croatian players who look at the prospect of getting into a fight with utter indifference. A fight? Pfft. The Croatians’ heart rates are not accelerating one iota; maybe at most you can sense their air of grim contempt nosing up from 97 to 98 percent.
Gonna be a battle, is what I’m saying. Unstoppable force meets immovable object shit. The Argentines will let nothing block them from getting Messi a World Cup trophy before he retires, but once Croatia gets stuck in, a nuclear blast won’t dislodge them. They’re fused to the rock itself.
Big news for Argentina is that their starting left back, Marcos Acuña, is suspended. This is a huge win for Argentina; Acuña has been terrible all tournament. Both goalkeepers have been phenomenal, but Croatia doesn’t have anything approaching Argentina’s attacking threat. It’ll come down to whether the Croats can smother Messi as effectively as they smothered his PSG teammate and fellow elf-king, Neymar.
Can they? No. Argentina 1-0. Book it.
Morocco-France. Oh man, I’m excited for this match. Obviously Morocco has no chance. Morocco is doomed. France is so tough. Morocco coach Walid Regragui’s side is down a striker after Walid Cheddira was sent off in the Portugal match, and maybe down a defender after team captain Romain Saiss left with an injury. Very, very hard to imagine a thin squad, one with a huge talent deficit and an even huger World Cup experience deficit, toppling the champs. If history has taught us anything, it’s that no one understands the principle of “if you come at the king, you best not miss” like the French.
And yet. Morocco had no chance against Belgium in the group stage. Morocco had no chance against Spain or Portugal. Morocco has rolled through this tournament treating hopelessness like a cute cartoon sidekick. I cannot pick against the vibes. On paper, this game has France 2-0 written all over it, but I’m siding with the audacity of hope and the moral arc of the universe.
Morocco defends heroically, grabs a flukey goal on a counter, goes into extra time tied 1-1, and wins on penalties. I do not, for one second, imagine that this will really happen. But I believe it will.
Remembering Grant Wahl
A quick postscript. This one hurts. Grant Wahl, the most influential American soccer journalist who ever lived, died on Friday, in Qatar, at the age of 48. Grant was a giant in the field. I didn’t know him well, but I knew him well enough to call him a friend, which isn’t surprising; almost everyone who knew him seems to have felt that way about him. He had a way of showing up for people when it counted the most. When I gave a book reading in Brooklyn—even one I hadn’t told him about—he’d be there. When I launched a soccer podcast earlier this year, he invited me on his show to talk about it, then promoted it more vigorously than I did myself. Dozens of people have stories like that about Grant. They’ve been all over Twitter since he died.
I am still struggling to comprehend the loss of my friend. More than that, I’m struggling to comprehend the loss of such a potent force for good in the sport we both loved.
Grant was a fearless critic of FIFA and the Qatari regime, but he managed to look hard at the rotten institutions that control the game without losing his capacity to delight in the game itself. I look at the worst stories to come out of FIFA’s past 20 years and I start to get cynical, I get bitter; as far as I could tell, Grant never did. He thought soccer should be better, so he did what he could to make it better. He talked to migrant workers. He showed up for LGBTQ+ rights. He took meaningful risks to make the sport more just. But his extensive firsthand experience of the game’s corrupt heart never made him lose hope or dampened his enthusiasm for debating the efficacy of a classic 4-4-2.
From the very beginning, this World Cup has demanded an impossible balancing act from its viewers. How can we appreciate these games, many of which have been magnificent, while remaining appropriately horrified at the context in which they’re taking place? Almost none of us have gotten this balance right. Grant did, and it’s a cruel irony that his death now will make that balance even harder to find for the rest of us.
All we can do is try—try to treat each other the way he treated us, try to make the world as good as he thought it could be. I don’t know if I think the world will ever be that good, but I’m trying, for my friend’s sake. May he rest in peace.