France beats Morocco, will face Argentina in the World Cup final


KHOR, Qatar — Where half a daydream World Cup final had blossomed without complication Tuesday night, the other half flowered without too much complication Wednesday night, and now this weeks-long string of soccer goose bumps has found its way to the Argentina Messis against the France Mbappés.

Any promoter would take that and grin, while the world can begin three idle days yammering with the utmost expectation. That’s after France spent its semifinal in a 2-0 withstanding of Morocco, the admirable darling of this World Cup, meaning that Sunday will come and bring Lionel Messi, the 35-year-old Argentine star whose jerseys appear upon kids and grown kids all over Planet Earth, against Kylian Mbappé, the 23-year-old French star whose jerseys have begun to appear upon kids and grown kids all over Planet Earth.

As a bonus, the match will include a slew of other players of absurd capabilities.

“Any team with Messi in it is a totally different proposition,” said 31-year-old French forward Antoine Griezmann, while any team with Mbappé in it is… a totally different proposition.

World Cup bracket and knockout round schedule

France — the loveliness of its soccer often matching the loveliness of its streets, parks, wine, art, architecture, countryside, coastline, language and other matters — did something all other elite teams found impossible against Morocco this World Cup: It scored. It scored lickety-split in the fifth minute and later in the 79th, with the former becoming the first dent Morocco had allowed all tournament other than a stray own goal awarded to Canada, wreaking the first deficit all World Cup for the first African and first Arab semifinalist.

“If I have one regret after this game,” said Walid Regragui, the new and already accomplished Morocco manager, “it’s the start of the game; we conceded a goal very quickly, and that gave France confidence, and allowed them to have good shape.”

France carried that advantage to a milestone, becoming the first defending champion to make the hard trek back to an ensuing World Cup final since Brazil in 1998, and only the fifth since this bonkers global habit began in 1930. It will seek to become the first defending champion to repeat since Brazil in 1962, when Pelé, Garrincha, Vavá, Zito and Amarildo were the one-word Brazilian names that wreaked joy in fans and hell in defenses.

Who on earth could unlock Morocco’s Fort Knox of a defense, which had become so admirable in this event as it played its first five matches and the outset of a sixth without conceding a goal, unless you count the own goal that deflected off a Moroccan’s lunging right boot? Who could score on Morocco in front of its fans, who had become so admirable in this event, who dominated the 68,294 in Al Bayt Stadium, and who had completed another stirring rendition of “Cherifian Anthem,” that national anthem built by a Moroccan author (lyrics) and French military officer (music)?

For Morocco, a World Cup run that transcends the sport

France could. Of course France could, even if it did have some help from fate, as if it required that.

First Nayef Aguerd, part of the four-man starting defense who had lent so much strength to Morocco’s hard-earned joyride through this tournament, could not go at all because of some of the flu going around here (and also affecting some French players ). Then Romain Saiss, the 32-year-old captain and defender, ran with a hobble that shouted the persistence of the injury that ended his quarterfinal on a stretcher in the 57th minute.

Regragui replaced Saiss in the 21st minute — “such an important player for us,” he said — but a small carnival of stuff had already happened by then.

France has navigated this World Cup with its own considerable injuries, and it lacked two normal starters for varying reasons Wednesday night, but in that fifth minute it began to feel fine again when it worked the ball around from the left edge of the pitch towards the right near midfield, towards Raphael Varane, the long-time defender. Varane slipped a gorgeous pass upfield to longtime artist Griezmann, who in one motion turned past a desperate Jawad El Yamiq and carried on down the right.

That looked ominous for any defense, and when Griezmann crossed towards Mbappé, that looked more ominous for any defense. Various Moroccans surrounded Mbappé, causing a deflection he darted quickly left to chase for another shot and another deflection.

Kylian Mbappé’s captivating, cascading World Cup joy

Yet his sheer presence mattered as it does merely all the time, because when that deflection caromed over to the left, it found defender Theo Hernández, Hernández found himself pretty much alone over there with Yassine Bounou, or Bono, the 31-year-old Moroccan goalkeeper and star of this event. Then Hernández, a 25-year-old defender who probably didn’t coax a lot of wagers to score in the world’s gambling establishments, did something acrobatically good.

Presented with a ball that bounced once and bounced high, he raised and contorted himself so the left boot that reached out parallel to the ground could propel the ball past Bono. As the ball bounded downward and then in and the French went to exult in the corner, two Moroccan players stood flustered in the goal as if the sight of a goal against them looked weird.

Morocco, to its further credit beyond all the credit it has earned here, coped with that by playing like somebodies who found themselves belonging here. They got a tremendous 25-yard shot in the ninth minute from Azzedine Ounahi, such a revelation in this World Cup, that goalkeeper Hugo Lloris had to dive left to thwart. They got a bicycle kick in the 45th minute from El Yamiq that arced towards the left post and made the stadium start a shake that might have lasted until Sunday had it scored. And they spent patches of the second half, both early and late, creating wowing and even glaring chances it couldn’t quite convert.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t clinical in the last third,” Regragui said, spotting in the match “the small details that help real champions win.”

“Morocco impressed me tonight,” Griezmann said.

“It wasn’t an easy victory,” said French Manager Didier Deschamps, who has already won the World Cup as a player (1998) and a manager (2018), “and we showed our quality and our experience and our team spirit. “

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They did all of the above and they held on, even when their defense had to extinguish fires both small and large. They finally overcame the continuing back-and-forth of the match in the 79th minute, finding something their skill made them bound to find. Mbappé had an ample role in that, too, with a head-shaking zigzag through three defenders in the top left corner of the box, whereupon he skipped one through a defender’s heel to Randal Kolo Muani, who had just appeared as a substitution with barely enough time to start sweating.

Kolo Muani, just 24, knocked in the gym, and France would send out an opponent who had become all grown up and hard to dismiss. That opponent would depart to one last boom of grateful cheers, and the World Cup will proceed towards a Sunday for which any World Cup would feel grateful.

World Cup in Qatar

The latest: France will face Argentina in the World Cup final after eliminating Morocco, 2-0, in the semifinal Wednesday in Khor, Qatar. Les Bleus will face Lionel Messi and Argentina on Sunday at 10 am Eastern for the world championship. Morocco will play Croatia in the third-place game Saturday.

The World Cup’s darling: Morocco has had a stunning World Cup run, beating several European powerhouses: Belgium, Spain and now Portugal. Its success has stirred pride and rare unity across the Arab world, evoking, for some, an earlier era of Pan-Arab nationalism.

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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