Reflections on the World Cup

Prologue. I know there are some people, not many but enough, who find football strange, uninspiring, unintelligible, even – gasp! – boring. I know that there are people in North America who view soccer the same way.

I am not one of those people. I fall more into the camp of those who agree with the great Liverpool manager, Bill Shankley, who is reputed to have said:

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

To any of my readers who might fall into the “what’s all the fuss about, it’s only a game” school of thought, please accept my apologies and move on. This blog is very much about football.

I recently read a great quote from Louise Penny. [If you don’t know her, she’s a wonderful Canadian writer. Check out her Chief Inspector Gamache novels.] Anyway, the quote was:

There’s a reason no reality TV show has followed the life of a writer. We pretty much just stare into space most of the time. And mutter. Expletives.

Penny, L. (2021). Building your community. In L. Child with L. R. King (Eds.), How to write a mystery (pp. 276-283). New York: Scribner.

I have to confess that this is usually one of my more repetitive activities, with interludes of varying length when I might actually write something down (or rather, type something up). But not recently. This past month, my staring into space, and muttering of expletives, has usually resulted from some bizarre occurrence at the FIFA World Cup.

Not that I have been overly surprised by the fates of ‘my’ teams. Nobody expected Canada to go beyond the Group Stages, and the whole country erupted when the first World Cup goal by a Canadian team was scored. We actually ended up with two, but the second was an own goal by the other team so that doesn’t really count. Except in the statistics.

England got as far as most people expected, which was the quarter finals, when they were defeated by France. Or rather, defeated themselves, having fought back to 1-2 and won a penalty with six minutes left. Only for the England captain, Harry Kane, to blaze his shot so far over the bar that it probably qualifies for ‘worst penalty at this World Cup’. So far, anyway.

Meanwhile, Belgium, Mexico and Germany were among those who didn’t get out of the group stages. In this they were at least better than Italy or Scotland, neither of which qualified in the first place. [Never mind, Mark; there’s always 2026]. Spain went out in the Round of 16, and then the Netherlands, Brazil, Portugal, and England fell at the quarter final fence.

And so, now there are four.

For what it’s worth, I think that Argentina will beat Croatia. This is partly the romantic in me – I would love to see Lionel Messi, one of the greatest players of the modern game and someone who has never won the World Cup, get a chance to go for glory.

And then there is France.

Je suis désolé pour mes amis français mais tes rêves sont terminés. C’est vrai, Robert, c’est vrai! Personne n’aime les Bleus. La demi-finale sera la fin.

Pourquoi ?

Parce que … France is the World Champion, and nobody likes a dynasty.

Parce que … their opponents will be Morocco.

A friend of mine is currently living in Rabat. She called me on Saturday, after Christian Ronaldo started his lonely and tearful walk down the tunnel, just so I could hear the eruption of noise that was coming from the streets of the Moroccan capital. It sounded like absolute bedlam. That raw unbridled passion of absolutely unanticipated success, of amazement threaded through with disbelief, that ‘pinch me I’m dreaming’ elation that only happens when the logically impossible happens – that is the euphoria in Morocco right now.

Life has a tendency to imitate art in so many ways. The friendless and lonely child who grew up to become rich and famous, the bullied person who ends up saving the life of a tormentor, the hardscrabble gardener who coaxes the world’s largest pumpkin out of the barren ground, the plain and ordinary that becomes striking and beautiful … these have been the plot lines of stories, plays and films since Marlowe and Shakespeare. And indeed, even before then, since the days of myth and saga. We like tropes like these because they give us hope, that perhaps we will achieve some private dream when we hear others scoff.

Of course, sometimes the imitation becomes a bit blurred, and reality reflects a slightly off-kilter version of the original art. The rich and famous person is a complete jerk, the saviour demands some outlandish reward, the pumpkin is hollow and rotten inside, the beauty becomes vain and vindictive. ‘Couldn’t handle their success’, we say, pityingly, as we nod sagely to each other and retreat back to our mediocrity. There is an element here of what the Australians call ‘tall poppy syndrome’, when someone who is seen to rise above the group is carefully cut back down.

In this World Cup, many hopes and expectations have already been dashed, many of the mighty have already fallen. Of the ones who are left, three are not unexpected. France are the reigning World Cup holders, hoping to repeat and be the first team to win the trophy in consecutive tournaments since Brazil in 1958 and 1962, sixty years ago. Before that, only Italy have also achieved this feat, in 1934 and 1938. So, it would be a huge success for France to win.

Argentina have won the World Cup twice, the last time in 1986, and have been runner-up three times. For one of their greatest-ever players, Lionel Messi, this is his fifth (and undoubtedly last) World Cup. He’s never won it, though, and this would surely be his dream opportunity.

To do that, however, he’ll first have to beat the third semi-finalist, Croatia, which many pundits picked to do well this year. Croatia has only missed one World Cup (2010) since emerging from the ruins of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. They have an experienced team, many of whom remember the last game they played in the 2018 series, when they lost the final 4-2 to France. If Croatia defeat Argentina, and France win, then 2022 will see a repeat of the 2018 final.

But for that to happen, France will have to win the second semi-final, against Morocco. We all love the underdog, the person who really shouldn’t be doing whatever they’re doing, but at the same time is doing it so well that we can only admire. Well, that’s Morocco, in football terms.

They are ranked 22nd in the world, and they are in the semi-finals of the World Cup. They have only let in one goal, and that was an own goal scored in one of the group games. By Canada, in fact, which is another claim to fame that team carried home. In this World Cup, nobody else has scored against them, whether in open play or in a penalty shoot-out. They have been claimed not only by everyone who lives in Morocco and the diaspora but by all Arab peoples and all Africans – surely a mighty weight to bear but expected when they are the first country from that continent to make the semi-finals of the World Cup. And now they face France, which was the colonial power in Morocco from 1912 to 1956. Once again, like the World Cup Final of 1966, old rivalries play out on the sporting stage.

There are many hopes and dreams evolving and mutating across the stadiums of Qatar, and making predictions is always a difficult task. My hope would be for Argentina to defeat Croatia, and Morocco to beat France, and then for Lionel Messi to lift the trophy after a pulsating final match at the Lusail Stadium next Sunday. But as you know from previous blogs, it is my lot in life to be a Leeds United fan, and for us hopes and dreams tend to be ephemeral and anticipatory rather than actual and achieved.

Thank you for indulging my passion for the beautiful game. For those who don’t share it, worry not – in another week I shall pack this all away, and it will be another four years until the next tournament!

And so, on Wednesday, like so many others, I’ll be staring into space and muttering expletives, and hoping that the underdogs win.
We’re all Moroccans now – sauf si nous sommes français.

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