I cannot start today’s column without paying homage to the gallant Atlas Lions who on Tuesday defended with every drop of their blood until they subdued Spain, one of the world’s soccer superpowers, in a penalty shootout that gave Morocco 3-0 to become the first North African country to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
The Moroccans were tactically supreme. They gave the Spanish “conquistadors” a master class in the art of defending in football. “They have shown tactical discipline which is hard to do when you are defending,” says an excited Nigerian soccer legend Jay Jay Okocha who is one of the ongoing World Cup panellists.
Hooray to the Atlas Lions. They made Africa proud. The Spanish team tried to bend them but they refused to bend. The Spanish invaders knocked on the door but the Moroccans refused to open. The Spanish national team popularly called La FuriaRoja (Red Fury) dominated the possession but their fury amounted to nothing. They looked for ways to score but Morocco warded them off. Towards the end, the heat was so intensive but Morocco survived to end nil-nil. Then the match went to penalty shootout. The Moroccans were as cool as cucumber. They fired the shots and it went straight into the net. The Spanish were not that lucky. Their captain Sergio Busquets fired the shot and the Moroccan goalkeeper Bono dived and saved it to worsen the case of Spain.
Ironically, the man who nailed the coffin of the Spanish team was Achraf Hakimi, a Moroccan born in Spain. When it came to finishing off the country of his birth, Hakimi took the penalty so casually but with deadly accuracy to score the winning penalty, after three luckless penalty kicks that ended in tears for Spain.
Morocco won this for the whole of Africa. We pray that they would forge ahead into the semi finals and ultimately to the finals. Who says Africa cannot win the World Cup?
Today’s clash between France and England is historic in the sense that the two neighbouring countries separated by the English Channel and linked by undersea rail Channel Tunnel are meeting in FIFA World Cup knockout stage for the first time. At the individual level, it is the battle between Kylian Mbappe, 23, and Jude Bellingham, 19, two young stars stamping their names and authority on the Qatar World Cup.
This is why we love the World Cup: the ability of certain players to put up outstanding individual performances such that the World Cup becomes synonymous with their names. We’ve had Pele’s World Cup. We’ve had Maradona’s World Cup. We are waiting to see Messi’s World Cup. Or Ronaldo’s World Cup. But so far, Qatar World Cup is springing up KylianMbappe of France and Jude Bellingham of England—two young football stars that are taking the bull by the horns with their outstanding performances. Who can forget Mbappe’s two goals scored in France’s 3-1 victory over Poland and another two goals scored against Denmark in France’s 2-1 group stage victory?
Eurosporttelevision says Mbappe has“surpassed Christiano Ronaldo and matched Lionel Messi’s tally with nine goals in total on the world’s biggest stage. He leads the race for the Golden boot with five goals, and has overtaken Brazil legend Pele for goals scored in World Cup aged 23 or under.”
Indeed, this is a World Cup of child prodigies shining like diamond. If France has their Mbappe, England has Jude Bellingham, the “star child” who at 17 moved from Birmingham City to Borrusia Dortmund. According to England’s coach Gareth Southgate, “The biggest thing (about Jude Bellingham) is that he’s got a top-level mentality to compete. Yes, he’s got technical ability of course, and he’s got athletic prowess, but the thing that makes the difference with top players is the mentality that they’re never beaten and they drive the game. They don’t look like they’re fazed by any occasion, and that’s what we’re seeing with him.”
We all saw what he did against Senegal in their 3-0 defeat to take England to the quarterfinals. In the words of Mark Doyle of goal.com, “The 19-year-old midfielder proved the catalyst for Gareth Southgate’s side to make the breakthrough and seal a World Cup quarterfinal berth. It takes a special kind of a teenager to carry a team into quarterfinals of a World Cup. Kylian Mbappe was one. Jude Bellingham is another.”
Most people think that without Bellingham, England may not have beaten Senegal. We saw how in the first half, the Three Lions dominated the possession, but did very little with the ball. On the other hand, Senegal were threatening on the break to cause another World Cup upset as they did against France, beating them 1-0 in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup.
At a time when England appeared clueless on the field of play, Angel Bellingham suddenly showed up, taking over and setting up two brilliant goals—one for Jordan Henderson and another for Henry Kane with the third goal coming from another whiz-kid: Bukayo Saka, the Nigerian-born England player who can play from left back, midfield to attack. Let us hope that tonight, Bellingham’s magic would once again steer England to victory. My heart is for England, but my instinct tells me France with the magic and force of the unstoppable Mbappe, will win!