Argentina, Morocco, France, Croatia prepare for World Cup semifinals

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RAYYAN, Qatar — Hardly anyone remembers much of anything about the first of the four World Cup matches of Nov. 23, seemingly about 10 years ago. This opener of Group F play happened on a cloudless afternoon with some mild chatter about heat — which sounds odd by now, the tolerable heat long since yielding to light-sweater air and cool Arabian nights.

It sure is funny now, though, because after the original 32 were reduced to the final four, with semifinals set for Tuesday and Wednesday, both participants from that scoreless draw remain. They remain with their little engines and big guts. They remain in the cherished role of dreamers. Croatia, the 2018 World Cup runner-up, remains because it is great at remaining. Morocco remains because of something beautiful: It seems to be undergoing a realization of its own elite capabilities.

World Cup bracket and knockout round schedule

Croatia will play Messi-tina — sorry, Argentina — on Tuesday. Morocco will play defending champion France on Wednesday. Ivan Perisic has something to tell you — and it seems to be you, Croatian journalists.

“You mentioned Morocco,” the 33-year-old Croatian mainstay said Monday at a news conference, “and the first match a lot of you were not very satisfied. So let’s see how far Morocco has made it.”

It’s the furthest advancement ever by a team from Africa.

“African teams need to be aware that we are elite teams,” Morocco Manager Walid Regragui said. He said that Nov. 23, back when a snooty response from the various soccer kingdoms might have gone: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Against the mastery of Lionel Messi so familiar to the world since forever and the majesty of Kylian Mbappé growing more familiar by the day, here go two who dared to dream — maybe even kindred spirits. They’re a small country from the brutish soccer neighborhood of Europe and a pretty big country shedding a smallish self-image. “With this feeling of inferiority,” Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou said after a quarterfinal win over Portugal, “we need to get rid of it.”

They appear to be getting rid of it.

Indestructible Morocco, the World Cup’s darling, moves on to the semis

They’ve made it to the semifinals without their opponents having scored — unless you count that moment when Morocco defender Nayef Aguerd just about did the splits to block a Canadian cross with his right boot and that boot managed to tick the ball in a fresh direction and fool Bounou for an own goal. That’s it, and that’s not even a demerit.

“These are great national teams,” Croatia Manager Zlatko Dalic said Monday, “and [the Moroccans] have the right to hope and dream. But let us share the very same dream.”

What a dream he’s having, this 56-year-old manager who took over Croatia in 2017. “I’ve said many times before, and I shall repeat: Everyone in life has a right to make dreams,” he said Monday. And maybe everyone has a right to dream contagion. “The Croatian team four years ago made the dream a reality for the other smaller countries,” Dalic said, “and we gave those teams the justification to have their dreams.”

In the realized dream academy of Croatia, the 2-1 win over England in a 2018 semifinal stands as No. 1, as Dalic ranked it. He said Friday’s quarterfinal win on penalty kicks against Brazil stands as No. 2. He said a victory over Argentina to reach a second consecutive final would vault past those two and stand as No. 1.

Yet he told of a pinnacle reached already.

Morocco World Cup win cheered across Africa, as the continent gets its first semifinals spot

“Quite honestly, I could not imagine that I would come so far, that I would be the head coach of Croatia, that I would be leading Croatia in the semifinals and final,” he said. “I thought this was a place reserved for other actors. But, thank God, I have the chance.”

And so: “My pride has no limits. The sky is the limit. I’m a happy person now.”

There’s no sense in stopping now, so on with a little mild gamesmanship regarding Argentina: “They’re under greater pressure than we are.” Yeah, some of their 46 million can remember actually winning the whole thing in 1978 and 1986. It’s never easy to play amid such memory banks. Also, Croatia ransacked Argentina, 3-0, in group play in 2018, but all involved insist that has nothing to do with this.

What does have to do with this would be the events of Nov. 23, because that marker shows how far these Lilliputians have come in the seeming 10 years since.

Croatia’s Luka Modric was in the position of having to explain what some found unacceptable given the continents involved and the results of 2018, so he went back to the pregame news conference of Nov. 22 and said, “It turns out we were right: They’re a difficult team.” Dalic, also having to explain, called Morocco “compact” and “well-prepared for us” and “a difficult opponent” and “good” and “fast” and “even faster than we were in some situations.”

“They played their hearts out,” he said — and doesn’t the world know that by now?

“This is not a disappointment,” he concluded, as if to reassure.

Kylian Mbappé’s captivating, cascading World Cup joy

Regragui, the 47-year-old former Morocco defender raised in Paris, had to remind of a curious reality: Hey, he had been on the job for somewhat shy of a while. “And nobody can forget,” he said, “I am here only two months, I have only three games, and for you to draw against Croatia in the first game, I think this is a very good point for us.”

At one point somebody asked a question in Arabic that became one of those Dostoevsky questions, long and winding and winding, and Regragui had to ask for a repeat because he could not gather in the whole thing, and the interpreter picked up a Moroccan journalist saying , “You’re Moroccan, and you don’t understand our Arabic?”

Just getting going then, he told of having midrange plans and long-range plans, including winning the Africa Cup of Nations. He wished he had won against Croatia but said the “outcome was great.”

He said: “We played in a very balanced way today — like a European team, a very solid way — and it was difficult for Croatia against us. I think we need to look at our specific characteristics as an African team and work on our strong points in the future. I think we also have to understand how to win this type of match, when it’s very tight. Eventually we’ll need to gradually improve over the tournament. We haven’t had all the time to work with the team so far, but I’m delighted today.”

Three weeks — or 10 years — later, what a short-range time for “eventually” to arrive.

World Cup in Qatar

The latest: Morocco topped Portugal, ending Cristiano Ronaldo’s World Cup campaign in Qatar, while France beat England to conclude the quarterfinal round of the World Cup.

Knock out round schedule: A World Cup group stage filled with shocking upsets and dramatic turnarounds will now give way to a knockout round that promises more surprises.

Today’s WorldView: Off the field, the World Cup has been the site of a rancorous contest between a moralizing West and increasingly indignant Qatari hosts and their Arab brethren.

Well+Being: They’ve trained their entire careers to perform at the World Cup — building endurance, strength and agility, and developing the mental toughness to handle the pressures of the game. It’s not easy being an elite soccer referee.

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