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Some in the shadow, some in the sun: A roundup of the semi-finals of the soccer World Cup

By Rick Majumdar

Dallas, TX – “Football (Soccer) is a pleasure that hurts,” said Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan journalist and writer. In many ways this statement is true.

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, the most watched sport in the world as well as the most played sport in the world. An average estimate of about 3.5 billion are tuning in to watch this year's World Cup held in Qatar which is almost 45% of the world’s population. The Super Bowl garners about a 100 million people on average; against the numbers of the Soccer World Cup there is no comparison. It is in many ways the working people’s sport. Places where monopoly capitalism or imperialism has gained a foothold from the poorest barrios and favelas of Latin America to the slums of India, soccer reigns supreme and in many ways is an escape from the conditions of deprivation and poverty. Some of the best players in the world come from these conditions.

This year’s cup, which will end December 18, sparkled with fantastic moments of drama. Several upsets caused by the Middle Eastern and Asian teams – namely Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan as well as the African teams of Morocco, Tunisia and Cameroon – made for an excellent watch and smashed the myth of European dominance several times over.

Morocco’s excellent run throughout the cup was seen with great delight throughout Africa and the Arab world. On their way to the semi-finals Morocco defeated Belgium 2-0 in the group stages and finished top of the group, winning against Canada and drawing the game against Croatia.

This would be Morocco’s first win in the competition since 1998 and the victory was significant because Belgium entered the contest ranked number two by FIFA. Morocco would then go on to defeat Spain in the round of 16, in a penalty shootout wherein the Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou saved three goals while Achraf Hakimi scored the winning penalty to send Morocco to the quarter finals. Morocco would again come out on top against Portugal in a tight, cagey game that was decided by a towering headed goal from Yousef En-Nesyri almost mimicking Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal would exit the world cup and it would more than likely be Ronaldo’s final bout.

Morocco’s intensity, determination and world class defensive performances from their captain Romain Saïss and Achraf Hakimi would place them in the semi-finals, becoming the only African team to do so in history. Their fans would relish the moment of this historic run and fill the stadiums with rows and rows of Palestinian flags, carrying forward the message that Palestine must be free. The players would themselves celebrate with Palestinian flags after their victories.

Morocco met France in the semi-final. France, the holders of the World Cup from 2018, had many blistering performances that swept away the likes of Australia and Denmark and despite losing against Tunisia, finished on top of their group. They continued their run with victories against Poland and England with amazing performances from Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Olvier Giroud.

Morocco’s match against France saw nearly 55,000 Moroccan supporters in a stadium with a 69,000 capacity, largely outnumbering the French fan base. Morocco started the game with the same defensive rigor as they had shown throughout the tournament, but their success would soon be undone as Kylian Mbappe’s shot was rebounded into the goal by Theo Hernandez; France were one goal up by the start of the fifth minute. Morocco almost tied it up with a spectacular overhead bicycle kick from Jawad El Yamiq but it was deterred by an equally fantastic effort from the French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Despite valiant efforts from Morocco and high ball possession statistics, a goal from Eintracht Frankfurt star Randal Kolo Muani made it two goals and led to the defeat of Morocco.

Emotional scenes ensued throughout the stadium as Moroccan fans tearful and left in the shadows, while the French celebrated their victory and qualification into the finals. Despite Morocco's unfortunate loss they were able to defeat teams from countries who had previously colonized them, creating hope for other African countries to follow in their footsteps.

On the other side of the coin was Argentina. Argentina entered the competition on the back of 35 straight victories including the two remarkable wins in 2022, the first against Brazil where they won the  Copa America trophy and the second against Italy in the CONMEBOL-UEFA Cup of Champions final. However, their excellent run was marred by Saudi Arabia who pulled off a historic win against them in what some have called the greatest upset in World Cup history. Despite the unfavorable start, Argentina managed to defeat Mexico and Poland in back-to-back games with the same score of 2-0. In the round of 16 Argentina managed to dispatch with Australia, winning comfortably 2-1, qualifying for the quarter finals.

Argentina faced stiff competition against the Netherlands though, dominating throughout the game with two goals, the first from Nahuel Molina who received a deftly ball from Lionel Messi who appeared seemingly out of the shadows, and the second from Messi himself via penalty kick. However, two swift headed goals from Wout Weghorst saw Argentina lose their lead in the final minute of the game which then went into extra time. Argentina nearly sent the Dutch packing with three brilliant efforts on goal. The game was settled via penalties; Emi Martinez, the Argentinian goalkeeper, made brilliant saves to stop the Dutch efforts and Lautaro Martinez sent Argentina into the semifinals.

The largest contingent of fans currently in Qatar outside of Arabic countries and Brazil is Argentina. This includes non-Argentinian nationality supporters from South Asia including Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, many of whom grew up watching Argentina from the time of their first and second World Cup victory in 1978 and 1986, during the heyday of Diego Armando Maradona. Maradona, whose untimely demise came last year, was, besides being arguably the greatest soccer player of all time, a supporter of several socialist projects across the world and was a close friend of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. He was also a great supporter of the Palestinian people as he once proudly declared, “In my heart, I am Palestinian.” Argentina carried forward this message by refusing to play Israel in a friendly match which was to take place in 2018.

Argentina met Croatia in the semifinal. Croatia was the runner up in the previous World Cup in 2018 and had until the semifinal a very resolute run. They managed to finish second in their group behind Morocco, winning one game against Canada and tying the other two against Morocco and Belgium. In the round of 16 they defeated Japan; Dominik Livaković was the hero of the day as he managed to stop three penalty shots from the Japanese. The Croatians continued with their defensive fortitude against Brazil, who throughout the start of the tournament were favorites to win the whole competition. The game went into extra time as Neymar Jr. was able to break the deadlock, but a deflected shot from Bruno Petkovic sent the game into penalties. Croatia was able to continue their performance in the penalty shootout and pushed Brazil out of the contest.

Argentina in no uncertain terms demolished Croatia on December 13. It started with a penalty under slight fortuitous conditions for Messi, followed by a fantastic run and finish by Julian Alvarez, and finally ended with Messi running, turning, dropping his shoulder against Joško Gvardiol, the best defender of the tournament, and laying the ball on a plate for Julian Alvarez to finish the game, 3-0 to Argentina, sending the thousands of Argentinian supporters into raptures, basking in the sunshine of victory.

Argentina faces France in the finals December 18. The final is painted in narratives. Messi, the forever understudy to Dios Maradona, finally receiving a second chance to claim the title of the best in the world after Argentina's loss to Germany in 2014. Kylian Mbappe, at the age of 23 will have a chance to seal consecutive victories for France in back-to-back World Cups, a feat unheard of since Brazil in 1958 and 1962. Whatever the individual narratives, both countries have an opportunity to add a third star to their jersey, a third star that will represent a third World Cup victory, carrying forward the collective hopes of two countries.

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