World Cup Final: Never mind the gamesmanship, Messi fulfils his destiny

AT TIMES, Qatar 2022 seemed to be a tournament devised to get Lionel Messi the one major prize that had eluded him in his illustrious career: the FIFA World Cup. The media were constantly sycophantic, ignoring all other contributions, referees seemed far too lenient when Messi transgressed and Argentina’s “shithousery” was largely overlooked as they worked to fulfil the destiny of the little man from Rosario.

Argentina won the World Cup on penalties, a wholly unsatisfactory way for any team to win a tournament. If FIFA had a little more imagination, the holders should have retained their title if their opponents failed to beat them in the match itself. But for a month of football and 64 games to be settled by a fairground sideshow is not just inappropriate but also leaves one with a hollow feeling.

Not that Messi and his team-mates will care too much about how they did it, because they demonstrated throughout the competition that they were prepared to go to any length to win the World Cup. The behaviour of goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, who had been excellent in his shot-stopping and overall agility, performed like an ill-disciplined pub keeper in the vital shoot-out. It left a lot to be desired and if he had acted likewise against an England team, the TV pundits would have been outraged. It was a pity, for Martinez fully deserved his golden glove award and will surely earn himself a move to a big ticket club in the near future.

The final itself was outstanding, as riveting as anything produced in past World Cups. Argentina merited their two-goal lead and France looked incapable of turning the deficit around until they were awarded a penalty in the 78th minute. Kylian Mbappé scored the spot-kick and then netted a truly spectacular volley less than two minutes later to square the game at 2-2. The blood seemed to drain from the face of Messi and others and France looked more likely to score a third before the end of 90 minutes.

Unlike some games, extra time kept everyone on their toes. Messi was denied by Hugo Lloris, but in the 108th minute, he scored from close range but Mbappé saved France with another penalty with two minutes remaining. France missed the chance to clinch victory in the dying seconds, but there was a sense of inevitability about the penalty contest.

Martinez successfully distracted the French players with his face-pulling, jibes and antics that included throwing the ball away. Given this was almost the last act of a pulsating game, his gamesmanship will be remembered just as much as his penalty saves. He certainly warranted his yellow card.

The world didn’t care, for so many people had been willing Messi to win the World Cup. He was also named player of the tournament and was denied the Golden Boot by Mbappé, eight goals to seven. Messi’s haul did include four penalties, some of which appeared to be quite meekly awarded.

Qatar 2022 was an interesting World Cup, never dull and often exhilarating. There were no truly outstanding teams but a few that were enhanced by talented individuals. The most focused and determined sides reached the final four and Argentina had Messi to steer them in the right direction. Without him, they wouldn’t have got far, but they did and they just about deserved their title.

Unfortunately, FIFA still needs someone to set them on the right path. Qatar 2022 may have been successful as a balance sheet exercise, but try to convince anyone with a social conscience that it was the right thing to do. All through the past month, there was an underlying feeling of mistrust around attendances, penalties given to favoured teams and ridiculous amounts of added time. And having made the trip to Qatar with various agendas to show displeasure at the hosts’ human rights record, FIFA stopped them stone dead once they were in the Middle East. It would be nice to believe FIFA has learned a lesson or two, but that really is wishful thinking. Qatar will not be the last suspect host nation.

Morocco’s most notable teams

MOROCCO made history in reaching the FIFA World Cup semi-finals, the first African nation to get this far in the competition. It wasn’t just a landmark for the north African country, it was a memorable occasion for the entire continent. CAF has been waiting for one of its teams to show the rest of the world that Africa should be taken seriously and Morocco demonstrated that they can now look Europe and South America in the eye.

Morocco’s run to the last four has been no fluke; they beat Belgium in the group phase and overcome Spain and Portugal, the two sides many felt would contend the semi-final in their half of the draw. They deserved it, playing with a discipline and determination that few have associated with African teams in the past. Nobody should underestimate Morocco in their semi-final with France.

1970 – A first World Cup

Allal Ben Kassou, Abdallah Lamrani, Moulay Khanousi, Kecem Slimani, Boujemaa Benkhrif, Mohammed Mahroufi, Driss Bamous, Mohammed El Filal, Said Ghandi, Maouhoub Ghazouani, Houmane Jaris, Ahmed Faras, Abdel Kader El Khiati, Jalil Fadili, Amed Alaoul.

Coach: Blagoje Vidinic (Yugoslavia)

Said Ghandi, a highly-rated midfielder/winger who played for Raja Casablanca. Won 31 caps for Morocco. Houmane Jarir, another Raja player, he scored Morocco’s first World Cup goal against West Germany. His career was curtailed due to a knee injury.

Morocco stunned West Germany in their first group game, Jarir scoring in the 21st minute from close range, shooting high into the net. The Germans didn’t equalise until the 56th minute from Uwe Seeler before Gerd Müller netted the winner 10 minutes from time. Morocco’s second game was a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Peru, who scored three goals in the last 23 minutes in León. Finally, Morocco earned a point with a 1-1 draw against Bulgaria.

1976 – Africa Cup of Nations winners

Mohammed Hazzaz, Mehdi Belmejdoub, Chérif Fetoui, Brahim Glaoua, Larbi Chebbak, Ahmed Abouali, Baba, Abdallah Semmat, Abdallah Semmat, Abdallah Tazi, Abdel Ali Zahraoui, Ahmed Faras, Abdelmajid Dolmy.

Coach: Virgil Mârdârescu (Romania)

Mohammed Hazzaz, agile goalkeeper who won 65 caps for his country and played for MAS Fez. Named as the best keeper in the 1976 AfricaCup of Nations. Ahmed Faras, one of the greatest players in Moroccan football history and the player of the 1976 tournament. Enjoyed a 17-year career with Chabab Mohammédia. Won 94 caps for Morocco.

Morocco’s only Africa Cup of Nations victory was in 1976 when they finished top of the final round in Addis Ababa. They had come through the first stage group with victories against Zaire and Nigeria and a draw with Sudan. In the four-team final group, they beat Egypt and Nigeria and drew with Guinea in the decisive last game in front of 30,000.

2022 – Last four of the FIFA World Cup

Yassine Bounou, Achraf Hakimi, Nayef Aguerd, Romain Saïss, Noussair Mazroumi, Sofyan Amrabat, Azzedine Ounahim, Selim Amallah, Hakim Ziyech, Youssef En-Nesyri, Sofiane Boufal, Yahia Atliyat Allah, Abderrazak Hamdalloh, Abdelhamid Sabiri, Jawad El Yamiq.

Coach: Walid Regragui

Yassine Bounou (Bono), goalkeeper who plays for Sevilla in Spain and won the prestigious Zamora trophy in 2021-22. Made a big impact in Morocco’s run to the semi-final of the World Cup, notably in the penalty shoot-out against Spain. Prior to the semi-final, he had won 50 caps for his country. Hakim Ziyech, Dutch-born winger who joined Chelsea in the summer of 2020 for € 40 million after impressing with Ajax. Has won 48 caps for Morroco. Achraf Hakimi, full back/wing back who plays for Paris Saint-Germain, whom he joined in 2021 for € 60 million from Inter Milan. Has won 59 caps for Morocco and is considered to be one of the best full backs in the world.

With Croatia and Belgium in their first phase group, Morocco were not expected to win through to the knockout stage of the World Cup. A 0-0 draw with Croatia didn’t suggest the Atlas Lions were bound for glory, but a 2-0 win against highly-fancied Belgium, goals from Saïss and substitute Aboukhial, provided one of the early shocks of the competition. After beating Canada, Morocco found themselves topping the group and preparing to face Spain in the last 16. The Moroccans played a very strategic game and their defence, one of the strongest in Qatar, gave Spain no quarter. The game went to penalties and goalkeeper Bono saved two as Morocco won 3-0. Bono was in fine form again in the last eight game against Portugal, who were beaten 1-0, thanks to a first half goal from En-Nesyri. Morocco set a new benchmark for African football and will be looking to create more headlines.

Morocco have bid to host the competition no less than five times and may also throw their hat in the ring for 2030. It must be getting harder to ignore the case for a North African World Cup.