DOHA – The Qatar World Cup 2022 semi-finals are upon us, with Argentina, Croatia, France and Morocco the only teams left standing.
In the first encounter of the last four, it will be Lionel Messi and Luka Modric going head to head tonight as Argentina battle Croatia for a place in Sunday’s final. The other semi – involving France and the only African team to play at this stage in the competition’s history – Morocco will be staged on Wednesday.
Messi and Modric – the two Ballon d’Or winners have inspired their teams to the last four of the tournament as their country’s respective captains, and both are looking to go one step further after reaching the final before by lifting the World Cup and capping their legacies with the ultimate prize.
As Lionel Messi starts to find the right words to go with the right touches, some of them surprisingly aggressive, there’s been a telling phrase used to describe him around the Argentina camp.
They talk of the 35-year-old as a “líder Maradonina,” a Maradona-like leader.
After his first major moment of the World Cup 2022, which was that essential and exceptional goal against Mexico, Messi was seen looking to the sky and mouthing “gracias Diego.” His teammates now speak of the “spirit of Diego,” and the 35-year-old is also being described as a “man possessed.”
While Argentine football can be overly invested in the emotion and influence of the metaphysical – one player has instructed the friend of an agent to stay because his arrival “brought good luck” – there are very real acts and effects to this. It could be seen in the aftermath of the quarter-final. The Netherlands’ Wout Weghorst had come over to try and swap shirts but Messi was still in battle mode, offering that now famous line as he broke from an interview. He was still consumed by the intensity of the contest.
The Argentine players meanwhile talk of a captain who is leading by example in every sense, so loudly encouraging them, giving team speeches. The various football figures that form the extended entourage have at the same time noted they’ve seen this before, and that it’s “like 1986.”
Having knocked out one South American giant in the quarter-finals, it’s Groundhog Day for wily Croatia as they aim to upset Argentina. Both sides came through draining penalty shootouts in the last eight, as a result of which Argentina are without suspended full-backs Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuña. Ángel Di María is fit, however, and may return to the starting XI to take some of the creative burden from Lionel Messi’s shoulders. Croatia have looked on the brink three times in this World Cup (1-0 down to Brazil, 1-0 down to Japan, while they could have gone out in the group stage if Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku had taken his shooting boots to Qatar). However the 2018 finalists are the ultimate competitors – and have won four shootouts in the last two World Cups alone. Argentina may be best advised not to settle for penalties no matter how tight this gets.
Meanwhile, England have landed back in the UK from Qatar with their World Cup dream over, following Saturday night’s 1-2 quarter-final loss to France.
After three major tournaments in charge, manager Gareth Southgate is now considering his own future – stopping short of clarifying his plans in the immediate aftermath of defeat and then admitting he is ‘conflicted’ about whether to stay on or call it quits, and wary of making ‘the wrong call’.
The referee – Wilton Sampaio – had his performance criticised and fans of the England team appeared to alter his Wikipedia page in response but he has since been kept on by Fifa for the rest of the tournament.