World Cup Daily, Day 23
Finally, an underdog (Morocco!) wins a Round of 16 game. And 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos bags a hat trick in his first international start for Portugal.
Note: Just because the United States is out of the World Cup doesn’t mean I’m slowing down my on-site coverage! I’ll still be doing daily posts from Qatar through the end of the tournament, and that will include the kind of quality magazine-style stories you have come to expect (featuring artwork by the tremendous Dan Leydon). Stick with me. The biggest games are yet to come.
DOHA, Qatar — The World Cup quarterfinals are set. We’ve got four great matchups to look forward to, and Tuesday provided the first set of real surprises in what had been a Cliffs-of-Dover-chalky Round of 16 until today. Spain is out, falling on penalties to Morocco after a performance that was eerily similar to Spain’s exit at this stage against Russia in 2018. Morocco becomes just the fourth African team to reach the World Cup quarterfinals—and the first since Ghana in 2010.
And while Portugal may have been favored against Switzerland, nobody expected to see 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos have a hat trick in his first international start as Cristiano Ronaldo got benched by coach Fernando Santos.
Here’s what we’re looking at for the quarterfinals starting Friday: Croatia-Brazil; Netherlands-Argentina, Morocco-Portugal and England-France.
MY THOUGHTS ON TODAY’S GAMES
Morocco 0, Spain 0 (Morocco advances 3-0 on penalty kicks)
I’m beginning to feel like Spain’s glorious reign from 2008 to ‘12 was the outlier and everything else for Spain has been basically playing the role of underperforming chokers over the years. Is that harsh? Maybe. But what we saw today was yet another game of listless possession by Spain while creating barely any real scoring chances.
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I also don’t think this current Spain team is as smart as the 2008-12 Euro and World Cup champions. Late in the game, Álvaro Morata was on the ball running into a rare pocket of attacking space when he could have taken on centerback Romain Saiss, who was so noticeably hobbling that he probably shouldn’t have been in the game. Instead, Morata veered to the left, created a much more difficult 1-on-1 situation and lost the ball.
Morocco’s collective defending was something to behold, as coach Walid Regragui kept his team in a compact shape that conceded possession in harmless areas to Spain but prevented just about everything in dangerous spots of the field. Regragui becomes the first African coach to lead a team to the men’s World Cup quarterfinals, and he’s a symbol of a welcome change: African coaches of African teams. At this World Cup, that has included Senegal (Aliou Cissé), Ghana (Otto Addo), Cameroon (Rigobert Song) and Tunisia (Jalel Kadri).
For far too many years, African federations have felt like they needed to hire mostly white European coaches. But it’s clear now that there are some really good African coaches out there. Regragui won the African Champions League with the Moroccan club Wydad earlier this year and only took over Morocco four months ago. At this World Cup, he has won a group that included Croatia and Belgium and has now sent Spain packing. Morocco is no fluke, and despite Portugal’s big 6-1 win over Switzerland, I think Morocco has a real shot at taking down Portugal to become the first African team ever to reach the World Cup semifinals.
Finally, let’s save some love for right back Achraf Hakimi and goalkeeper Yassine Bounou. Not a single Spanish penalty found the net against Bounou, the Montreal-born keeper who saved two spot kicks and kept Spain from gaining any momentum in the shootout. And Hakimi had the cojones to do a Panenka on the game-clinching penalty and celebrate by doing a waddle dance, an apparent homage both to Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jaylen Waddle and to his club teammate Sergio Ramos, who was left off Spain’s World Cup team. Solid trolling all around by Hakimi.
Then he capped everything off by doing his World Cup ritual of hugging his mom, Saida Mou, in the stands. How great is the World Cup? Hakimi was born in Madrid to a Moroccan father (who was a street vendor) and mother (who cleaned houses), and now he’s delivering the death blow for Spain at a World Cup.
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Portugal 6, Switzerland 1
Let’s see here: Portugal coach Fernando Santos decided to bench Cristiano Ronaldo and replaced him with Gonçalo Ramos, who had played a grand total of 10 minutes in this World Cup and had never started a national team game before today. And all Ramos did was score three goals that were each gorgeous in their own ways as Portugal ran roughshod over the Swiss in a scoreline that nobody would have expected.
Look at Ramos’s first goal again. It’s mesmerizing. At that angle he had no business finishing past Yann Sommer, but Ramos blasted it past him anyway. It’s rare these days that a player can break out in a big way at the World Cup. We’ve seen so many of these players at club level and in the Champions League. And while Ramos has had some moments for Benfica this season in the UCL, especially now that Darwin Núñez has moved on to Liverpool, today’s performance was an announcement to the world.
The drop-off for Ronaldo has been precipitous in recent months. He’s had a legendary career, obviously, but he’s a below-average international striker at this point. Both Manchester United and Portugal play better without him than they do with him. I hope he has a line item in his $200 million-a-year contract with Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr that says he can’t be benched, because it might happen there too.
The truth is that Portugal has two players other than Ronaldo who I’d like to see get in the starting lineup: Rafael Leão, the best player in Serie A, who scored again today in a sub’s role, and João Cancelo, who should be starting any day of the week over Diogo Dalot. But I guess it’s hard to point out a coach’s faults when he wins 6-1 in a World Cup knockout game.
Lastly, let’s give it up for Pepe. This guy turns 40 in February, has been playing for Portugal since 2007 and continues to do important things like scoring the second goal tonight on a set-piece header.
MY DAY IN DOHA
Now that I got some antibiotics from the media center medical clinic, I’m starting to feel better on the bronchitis front. But I still needed a massive sleep catch-up and got it last night. Twelve hours! That’s crazy—and about seven hours more than I have been getting every other night here. I know a bunch of people are bummed that there aren’t any games the next two days after 17 straight days of matches, but I could use a couple more days to recharge. (Don’t worry, I’ll still be writing stuff here!)
Now that Spain is out, the main teams covered by all of us in our house are out of the World Cup: Spain (Guillem Balagué), USA (me), Germany (Raphael Honigstein) and Italy (James Horncastle), which never even made it. James is English, though, so I guess you could say his native team is still around.
It’s a bummer that some of my journalist friends are starting to leave for home. Rafa departs on Wednesday, and my American friends Sam Stejskal and Paul Tenorio from The Athletic just left. I have enjoyed talking to everyone about their World Cup experiences, especially people like Sam and Paul who are just finishing their first one.
On Wednesday night, I’m commemorating the first off day from games by having about 20 media friends over for dinner at our house to celebrate my birthday. Usually at World Cups I host a Fourth of July party, but it’s obviously a different time of the year for this one.
I’ll leave you for today with my picks for the quarterfinals:
Brazil over Croatia, Argentina over the Netherlands, Morocco over Portugal and France over England.
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Grant, wasn’t Croatia over Japan technically an “upset”? Japan had won their group.
I was thrilled that Portugal played its best game of the tournament without Ronaldo. He’s burning down his own legacy as fast as he possibly can. They could win it. But I hope Morocco beats them. Then we don’t have to hear any more about him.
Any Qatari cuisine that’s comparable to “space ￼borscht”?
This tournament keeps getting better and better, it’s perfect (and has been since 2014, but more so the last two because of better groups using rankings over geography). FIFA going to a 48-team tournament in future editions is the worst decision possible, I hate it and it makes me sad that this will be the last one.