Tuesday’s tantalizing World Cup semifinal between Argentina and Croatia features Lionel Messi and Luka Modric, both of whom are eager to win football’s top honor.
The first African team to ever make it to the World Cup final four will face reigning champions France in the second semifinal on Wednesday. Morocco is known for taking down giants.
But first, all eyes will be on the enormous Lusail Stadium, where Messi, who is now 35, will try to lead Argentina into the final against the runners-up from last year for the second time in eight years.
Messi, who lost to Germany in the 2014 final, is fervently hoping to emulate another Argentine legend, the late Diego Maradona, who won the title in 1986, to cap an incredible career.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward played a key role in Friday’s dramatic quarterfinal victory over the Netherlands, which saw a tournament record 18 yellow cards issued and players from both teams engage in a scuffle as the referee battled to regain control.
Even Messi, who is typically polite, got caught up in the animosity and yelled insults at Dutch players as he was being interviewed after the game.
Lionel Scaloni, the coach of Argentina, defended his players’ actions on Monday, saying they had nothing to apologize for.
“The game the other day was played in the right way by both teams. That is football,” said the 44-year-old Argentina coach.
“I don’t buy this idea that we don’t know how to win. The game was played in the right way.”
Croatia hasn’t won a knockout game in regular time at a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup, when they finished third. They defeated pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Japan in penalty shootouts to get there.
The nation of fewer than four million people astonished the football world by making it to the final four years ago in Russia, but they had to do it the difficult way, and France ended their aspirations with a 4-2 victory.
CROATIA DEFY ODDS
Croatia has once again beaten the odds to stand on the verge of a second straight final, with Real Madrid playmaker Modric still serving as the team’s captain at the age of 37.
The nation should look back on Tuesday’s game as the “best game,” according to coach Zlatko Dalic.
“At back-to-back World Cups to be among the four best national teams, that’s an extraordinary success for Croatia,” he said.
“However, we want more,” he added. “I’m optimistic and have full confidence in my players. They’ve shown their great quality and strength of character, and deserve to be in the final.”
On Wednesday, France is the overwhelming favorite to defeat Morocco and advance toward retaining their crown.
However, the African team’s historic journey to the semifinals has captured the attention of an entire continent, and they have a huge following in Qatar.
Since France was Morocco’s former colonial power and many of individuals with Moroccan ancestry reside and work there, the game will have extra spice.
Hugo Lloris, the captain of France, said his team was prepared for a pro-Morocco crowd and was taking no chances.
“We can only have respect and admiration for what they have done, but nothing happens by chance at this level,” he said.
“When a team is capable of beating Belgium, Spain and Portugal, and finish top of their group, it is because they have lots of quality on the field and undoubtedly off it too, in terms of cohesion and team spirit.
“They will be formidable opponents, and on top of that there will be a hostile atmosphere in the stadium.”
The demand for tickets to the game has been so high that Royal Air Maroc has said it will schedule 30 additional round-trip flights to transport ecstatic fans to the Gulf state.
Morocco’s coach, Walid Regragui, claimed that his team was hungry for more than just a semifinal spot.
“If you get to the semifinals and you are not hungry then there is a problem,” he said on Tuesday.
“The best team in the tournament, Brazil, is already out. We are an ambitious team and we are hungry but I don’t know if that will be enough.”
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