Cope: France-England is the heavyweight bout we’ve been waiting for at 2022 World Cup
Argentina and Croatia emerged as Friday's quarterfinal winners
Special to the Daily
The big boys are getting down to business now at the FIFA men’s World Cup. After two weeks of pool play leading into the knockout rounds — without a day off — we are now down to the major teams. After two days off to walk our dogs, get some skiing in and introduce ourselves to the family, it’s time to go again.
Sure, there are some absences — Germany and Spain, most notably — however, the remaining teams have won 10 World Cups. Only the 2016 European champions, Portugal, and the 2018 World Cup runner-ups, Croatia, lack a World Cup title on their resume. In other words, there is serious pedigree in the group of teams remaining.
The one outsider, Morocco, has given the continent of Africa hope. What a moment for Morocco, defeating Spain for the first time since the Moorish invasion of 711 AD! The Spanish will hope they can prevent this from lasting as long as the 800 years that the Moors ruled Spain, bringing with them advances in science, mathematics and education. Morocco gets a chance to complete their Iberian Peninsula domination Saturday at 8 a.m. when they face off against the Ronaldo-less Portugal. It will be a big call by the manager to leave “CR7” and his 500 million Instagram followers on the bench, but the performance of his younger players seems to suggest that he will.
Could an African team make it to the semifinals for the first time ever? A neutral observer can only hope so. Unfortunately for Africa, a majority of the players for Morocco are European-born but of Moroccan heritage.
This has been a trend of recent World Cups as players of African descent play for European countries or return to their countries of heritage. Within Europe, players play for their country of refuge or migration. The United States’ Timothy Weah has a Jamaican mother, his dad is the president of Liberia, he was born in Queens and he plays professionally in Paris. In truth, this dates far back in World Cup history. In fact, Portugal’s best player in the pre-Ronaldo era was the great Eusebio, who hailed from Mozambique, a Portuguese colony at the time.
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France has dominated this World Cup in many ways, not the least of which is the number of players competing. Fifty-nine French-born players have suited up for various teams in this World Cup as the talent hotbeds in the suburbs of Paris seem to produce an endless production line of talent. Some in the French public and political arena have struggled with the concept of the French team being “French” enough, but with each successive generation of players, more have come to embrace them.
The troubled Algerian superstar Zinedine Zidane — of Algerian descent and from the second city of Marseille — had his image projected onto the Eiffel Tower after France won in 1998, then got himself sent off in the 2006 final defeat. France’s most beloved player at the 2018 World Cup might have been N’Golo Kante, born in Paris and of Malian descent. In 2022, Kylian Mbappe seems to be settling the age-old, “Messi or Ronaldo?” question with a clear answer: neither! Mbappe’s speed and graceful stride has taken over the tournament thus far. It will be a tall order for the English defense on Saturday at noon to stop or contain Mbappe.
Speaking of England, the great ex-English player and pundit Peter Crouch sent out a teasing Tweet after England advanced past Senegal in the round of 16. It simply said, “It’s…” a coy reference to the, “It’s coming home,” slogan adopted by English fans since 1996, when they hosted the Euros. At the time, it was just 30 “years of hurt” since England had won a World Cup. As we approach 60 years since England’s last victory, the Three Lions will try to stop an invading French force of attackers more effectively than they were able to in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings!
On Friday, Argentina defeated the Netherlands. And Croatia, with the everlasting Luka Modric at the heart of their midfield, defeated Brazil — both in shootout wins. Finalists in 2018, Croatia — a country with just 3.8 million people, a little more than half of Colorado’s 5.8 million — are back again in the late stages of the tournament. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t have the resources, population or athletes to win a World Cup.
The beauty of this game is that it takes all types of people to win. Yes, great athletes help, as evidenced by Kylian Mbappe hitting a top speed the other day that, if sustained, would translate to a 3.8 second 40-yard dash. He could be a top NFL cornerback. But it also takes guile and creativity (Croatia’s Modric, England’s Henderson and Morocco’s Boufal), and it takes skill and technique (Messi and Richarlison).