First things first: As the sport of soccer mourns, take a moment to remember Grant Wahl, a journalist of the highest order.
France 2 - 1 England
Doesn’t feel right to split either of the games today into “Game of the day” and then secondary, because they were both so enjoyable.
Because of the shrinking of talent gaps between teams in this World Cup, and the same in management, sometimes I wonder how any team actually wins the fucking thing. We know the next couple of weeks will be a massive autopsy in the English press about where England went wrong and why again it isn’t coming home. One wonders what Harry Kane will go through for the next few months after missing that second penalty which would have tied the game at 2.
And yet, these games now are decided on such ridiculously thin margins that no matter how loud the tabloids yell and how deep the analysts dig, all they’re going to find is “sometimes you don’t win.” England had maybe their best-ever squad, and quite honestly they played far better than France today. Their tactics were mostly spot-on. Their numerical advantage in midfield was manifested by both Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham pulling out wide to combine with Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden. That forced the French midfield duo of Aurélien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot to either follow the out wide, completely exposing the middle of the field, or allow England that overload out wide, which also meant England could keep their fullbacks pretty reserved to guard against Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembélé from getting loose on the counter.
And yet, sometimes, a player like Tchouameni rifles one in from 25 yards. Sometimes a player like Antoine Griezmann, who had spent most of his night with the lint in Declan Rice’s pocket, puts in a delicious cross that Olivier Giroud heads off Harry Maguire and it goes in.
Yep, Kane missed his second penalty. You can’t miss the chances when they come (ask Chrisitan Pulisic). Yeah, Saka was probably fouled before France’s first goal. It’s easy to say that England, thanks to their history, always finds a way to blow off their toes, and France, thanks to their history, just finds a way to win. It feels better to have an actual explanation rather than know that sometimes the ball bounces this way and sometimes it bounces that. The latter can’t be fixed.
But that’s the game, that’s sports. France were pretty putrid for most of the game, their defending was slapstick and ragged. They looked to have run out of ideas in attack. And yet two moments of brilliance, and one cock-up from England, and you get your result. It’s a testament to just how much any manager or team can control, and no matter how well and thoroughly they do that there is still so much up to chance. You can’t plan for the opposing goalkeeper like Hugo Loris to have a blinder (ask Brazil).
Sometimes, you just lose. There’s a huge list of sides I could name who never won anything and you look back and you’re stunned. Argentina or Portugal in the 2000s or Belgium in the 2010s. Italy won the Euros, sandwiched between not even qualifying for two World Cups. It doesn’t have to make sense. Sometimes, you just lose.
Morocco 1 - 0 Portugal
We officially have our weird team of the tournament, which we suspected would happen before the tournament given its odd placing in the calendar (and of course, they knocked out the weird team I bet on to win it, because that’s how I roll). Morocco become the team from Africa to reach a semifinal. And deservedly so.
There is always an urge to deride a team that defends as Morocco does for most of a match as getting lucky and coming up 7s. You could more easily make that argument for Croatia, who needed their keeper to stand on his head to even get Brazil to penalties. While Morocco’s Yassine Bounou made a save or two, it’s not like he was asked to perform satanic rituals to see his team through.
Morocco had this one under control, and manager Walid Regragui has this team so well-drilled that it feels like there are no holes. Portugal did, at least in the first half, what Spain wouldn’t and tried to go more direct, hit more passes over the top of the defense to try and open up space between the midfield and defense. Portugal helped them out a bit by not starting their most direct player in Rafael Leao, and none of those searching balls really connected. Morocco were unphased and continued to choke the life out of the game with their mid-block and high(ish) defensive line that provided no space. Portugal starting so many players who want to drift inside didn’t help their cause, but Morocco still had to do their defending.
The lesson of the day is that you can’t miss the bear when you have a shot, and it helps when you have a striker like Youssef En-Nesyri that can tell gravity to fuck off for a brief second while he takes care of something:
From there, Morocco could easily drop deep and dare Portugal to find a way, while still carrying a massive threat on the counter given just how smoothly and quickly they string together moves and passes up the field when given space. They actually had better chances than Portugal when up 1-0.
Also, they had the biggest piss-taking moment of the tournament:
It’s startling that Regragui has only been in the job a couple of months. But he has a plan, he got his players to buy in, and as the talent gap between teams shrinks more and more, that can go a long way in a World Cup. It’s still going for Morocco.
Goal of the day
Morocco’s was momentous and will live in history, but for sheer quality, Tchouameni’s strike is the pick. Even if Jordan Pickford had normal-sized arms, he would be flapping at this:
Venomous, is the word.
Did VAR fuck anything up?
England probably should have had a penalty before they got their first penalty, as Saka was essentially tackled on the edge of the France penalty area. But other than that, not especially, despite Portugal’s and Pepe’s hilarious and whiny complaints.
Did Alexi Lalas say anything stupid?
He mostly left that for Clint Dempsey, who wanted to the whole big thank you to Cristiano Ronaldo for all he’d done, which sounds pretty damn awkward and aloof given…y’know.
A eulogy of the departed
England - As a Bears fan, I know when I’m watching a team and fanbase that has garnered attention and noise that far outweighs its accomplishments. As well as being the team that invented the sport. England and its supporters will take no consolation in just being unlucky again, and they will tear themselves apart trying to find something tangible they can blame in the hopes it can be put right come Germany 2024. And the pressure will build even more, the urgency crushing, and it’ll continue to feed itself. And the self-flagellation will basically be the story. The thing is England, like the Bears, have rarely been even close to the wins that would match their perceived status. One Euro final, one Super Bowl in recent times for each. England are still well-positioned for the future, given the ages of Saka, Foden, Bellingham, Rice, Mount, Rice, Phillips, and Rashford. But the pressure is only getting worse, the expectations elephant-weight, and it feels like it’ll always break their backs. They’ll chase Gareth Southgate out of the manager’s job after this, but who can do better or differently? This is England, and they can never just be settled in waiting for the bounces to go their way.
Portugal - Most fans will dine on this for a while:
Ronaldo may be crying at this last World Cup going away, or that he didn’t start again, or that he’s about to head into irrelevance by taking Saudi Arabia’s blood money, or some combination thereof. He was Portugal for so long, but they’ll be a better team without him now. It’s hard to have sympathy for a man who made even his national team merely something in service of himself. He’s got the trophies and medals. He’s got the goals (he’s also got the freedom from prison a lot would say he shouldn’t have). But when Messi exits there will be sadness and appreciation. At this moment, most are just saying to Ronaldo, “Good, fuck off.”