Gareth Southgate, Sofiane Boufal with his mother, Kylian Mbappe. Composite: Getty
It is uplifting to see players practicing their religion and celebrating with their mothers on such a big global stage
Africa spans 30.37m square kilometres, taking in more than 1.2 billion people, who speak between 1,000 and 2,000 languages across 54 countries. These are aspects not always obvious from the monolithic way a continent of wondrous diversity is written about and discussed, something the World Cup has brought into even sharper focus.
Of course, it remains true and significant that Morocco – who face France in this evening’s second semi-final – are the first African side to reach this stage of the competition. But, though Walid Regragui’s men no doubt feel the honour of that joyous achievement, what is also evident is the extent to which it is particular and specific.
Morocco is a Muslim country, and before the last-16 penalty shootout against Spain, the players recited Surah al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an. Then, after securing passage to the quarter-final and also after winning it, the squad ran to their fans and prostrated themselves in prayer – in the process, declaring to the planet not only their pride in being Moroccan but their pride in Islam, inspiring ecstatic celebrations throughout the Muslim world.
With good reason. There is no World Cup of discrimination nor should there be – every minority and every ethnic group has its challenges, and the way these are overcome is with unity not rivalry. But anyone whose eyes are prepared to see knows that Muslims are persecuted in many nations, whether by discrimination when seeking employment, backhanded insults and equivocations in news reports, or outright violence. And as with many forms of prejudice, it is women who often bear the brunt.
So to see Moroccan players paying homage to Allah before applying Allah’s teaching to pay homage to their mothers – who were wearing hijab! At the game! On global television! – was not only beautiful, moving and uplifting, but important, crystallising the crux of international competition: to learn about different cultures; to share love by celebrating difference; to make the world a better place. Amin. DH
Álvarez creating space for Messi to express his genius
Lionel Messi is good at football – you may have noticed – and in his brilliance over the last week, there’s been something reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane – also good at football – who, at the 2006 World Cup, dredged up the display of his dotage when France beat Brazil in the quarter-final, then scored the winner as they eliminated Portugal in the semi. What these efforts have in common is, of course, ridiculous genius – but there’s more to it than that. Just as Zidane had the intelligent, tenacious running of Thierry Henry, Florent Malouda and Franck Ribéry ahead of him, so Messi’s influence is intensified by the exuberance and aggression of Julián Álvarez stretching the play, which gives him space in which to work and a target to hit. Consequently, whoever Argentina meet in the final will need a plan – not just to combat the respective individuals, but their burgeoning partnership. DH
Should the England manager always be English?
When Jamie Carragher tweeted “The @England manager should always be English!” he started a discourse which then escalated rapidly. Anyone who’s looking to irreparably damage their wellbeing: by all means, read the quote tweets. On the one hand, Englishness is an arbitrary characteristic which does not make someone good or bad at being a football manager, in the same way as once having had red hair does not make someone a good Fifa president. On the other, it may well have helped Gareth Southgate, for instance, that he was already deeply familiar with the internal workings of the FA and the wider context of English football when he stepped up from managing the under-21s in 2016. Every manager who has won the men’s World Cup has been the same nationality as the team they coached to victory. Does that mean a foreign manager could never win the tournament? The obvious answer is: no, it does not, but that would be a great question to ask on Twitter if you wanted your mentions to be an absolute bin fire. WM
Fifpro, the global professional footballers’ union, says it is “shocked and sickened” by reports emerging from Iran that Amir Nasr-Azadani is facing execution after “campaigning for women’s rights and basic freedom in his country”. Fifpro added that it “stands in solidarity with Amir and call for the immediate removal of his punishment”.
Nasr-Azadani, a 26-year-old defender who last played for Tractor in Iran’s Pro League, is one of six people Amnesty have said could be awaiting or undergoing trial on charges carrying the death penalty. On Tuesday, courts in Tehran sentenced more than 400 people to prison terms for charges related to recent protests in the country. NMc
Before France’s clash with Morocco, some focus in the French press was on the gulf in status between the squad. In Libération one data exercise looked at their comparable transfer values, claiming Les Bleus are valued at nearly €1bn while Morocco’s players are worth less than €250m. The paper also took a more historical view of the links between the nations, reviving the memory of Larbi Ben Barek. The Moroccan-born player appeared for France 17 times, but the gap between his debut in December 1938 and his final cap in October 1954 made him not only one of the most successful French-African players of the era, but the longest-serving French international of all-time.
The historian Yvan Gastaut explored the colonial history between the two nations in Le Monde. “Even today, the French championship is still more prestigious and players will always choose to play for the French team rather than the Moroccan team if they have the choice,” he wrote. This may come as some news to French-born Romain Saïss, who has excelled in Qatar. He chose Morocco over France, and has plied his club trade in England and Turkey rather than Ligue 1.
In Morocco’s French-language Le Matin, Abderrahmane Ichi predicted a tactical battle on Wednesday night, saying “even if coach Walid Regragui is, as usual, showing modesty … he has been able to respond to the tactical patterns of his opponents and has managed to outsmart them. Roberto Martínez, Luis Enrique and Fernando Santos know all about it.”
In another Le Matin piece, Youssef Moutmaine recalled that in 2016, Marco van Basten lambasted one of Morocco’s stars for opting to play for the Atlas Lions. “These are stupid choices, they are stupid boys who should have had a little patience. Hakim Ziyech is a great player but how can you be stupid enough to opt for Morocco when you are eligible for the Dutch team?” Moutmaine writes that Ziyech said he had chosen with his heart, and notes: “When it comes down to it, Mr Van Basten, the choice of the heart has not turned out so stupid after all”. MBe
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