France in World Cup final, but not before resolute Morocco win over more fans

Express News Service

DOHA: One overzealous intervention by central defender Jawad El Yamiq was all it took – there had been no need to cover Antoine Griezmann, the underrated star of the French team, all that much in that moment of play but as it was Morocco’s number 18 slipped and in that split second Morocco’s World Cup dream all but faded. Griezmann sprinted away and at the far post Theo Hernandez, after the ball had taken a detour, volleyed his side into the lead. The strike was clinical, a mirror of Les Bleus 2.0, who spearheaded by Kylian Mbappe, do not enchant or enthrall but again practice a form of pragmatism that pleases Didier Deschamps and leads to victory.

And so, five minutes into the semifinal, Morocco were on the backfoot, confronted with a novel situation in these finals: they were trailing for the first time. This was the true test of the Atlas Lions and for a moment the face of Yassine Bounou, the standout number one, was full of bewilderment and disbelief. The unflappable goalkeeper, with boyish expression, flair and miraculous saves, had conceded a proper goal for the first time during the finals.

Did the realm of possibility close for Morocco? They had been more than simply an underdog in this tournament, but demonstrated that with talent, strategy and resilience everything was possible. Giant slayers, they were the first African team to feature in the last four of the World Cup, empowering not just the African continent but the Arab world as well as other parts of the football fraternity.

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Morocco proffered a glimpse of so many hopes and dreams, outside the game as well. They also prompted existential questions: who did they represent? What did it mean to be Moroccan? From the berber community to the diaspora around the world, their semi-final presence thrust a new spotlight on conundrums of cultural identity.

Bounou was born in Montreal, Canada. Born in Casablanca, Azzedine Ounahi let fly a brilliant curling attempt. Born in Khouribga, El Yamiq came closest to equalising. On the brink of half-time, his spectacular overhead kick kissed the woodwork after the slightest of touches from Hugo Lloris. It was almost a reward for their fine response to Hernandez’s strike.

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Walid Regragui’s team had poise and composure. When asked the question they replied with verve. They were having most of the ball, even if the North Africans were vulnerable to the French counterattack, ceding opportunities to both Mbappe and Oliver Giroud. Midway, the first half, Selim Amallah had replaced Romain Saiss, a hardened captain exhausted from the historic triumph against Portugal, with Morocco switching to a more conventional 4-3-3 formation.

Yet, perhaps, Morocco were up against an intangible force. At the best of times tournament football is unforgiving. The first semifinal had turned on a single second, Luka Modric’s unfortunate moment of inaccuracy, but at Al Bayt Stadium, as the French were stretched thin, almost paddling for the end at times, as the Moroccans kept getting ever closer to an equaliser, France wielded their experience, rode their luck and leveraged the weight of history – playing the World Cup final remains the privilege of a very select group of countries. 

Often, Deschamps stood with his hands on his hips, perhaps wondering what was going on, perhaps quietly confident that his side would prevail. The French dropped deeper and deeper, protecting their penalty box, inviting Moroccan pressure.

And, then, suddenly, after all Morcco’s barnstorming play with Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech torturing the French backline, it was over. In the 79th minute, Mbappe slalomed his way past Moroccan defenders in the box and Randal Kolo Muani provided the winner after the number ten’s deflected attempt. This was another masterclass in French efficiency. 

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Throughout the 90 minutes, Morocco had looked vulnerable to the counter. The game was beyond Morocco and the final was out of reach. France had done enough, as they had throughout the competition, demonstrating their sangfroid.

Morocco’s resoluteness and togetherness remained until the end when even Regragui’s men, the second side in this tournament that always defied defeat, had to admit the game was up. As trailblazers for Africa they made history. The French, too, are one step from history. Les Bleus can become the first team to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962. They will have to overcome the high-flying Argentinians and the superlative Lionel Messi to do so.

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