World Cup briefing: Morocco win further boosts hopes of a region

Organisers of the 2022 World Cup have long stressed it is not a tournament for Qatar, but one for the Middle East, the Arab world and the wider region. It is a convenient line when explaining why a tiny desert kingdom is hosting one of the world’s biggest summer sporting events in the middle of winter.

But now that the football is in full flow, there is plenty of evidence to support the premise and push back against those who say there is no “football culture” here. Qatar may have been the first team to be knocked out after losing their first two games, but others are generating unexpected buzz.

Saudi Arabia’s shock win over Argentina was such a big deal that the king declared the next day a public holiday. They still have the chance to make the next round if they can get past Mexico.

Ditto Morocco, who on Sunday delivered the tournament’s latest shock result, beating a star-studded Belgium team 2-0, in front of tens of thousands of jubilant Moroccans. They will face Canada next, and will fancy their chances.

These successes on the pitch are helping to rally fans across the region, and bring a rare moment of unity. This is a World Cup like no other, but some people are relishing the difference.

Monday’s one to watch: Ronaldo, Suárez and the end of an era

Cristiano Ronaldo required a penalty against Ghana to become the first man to score in five World Cups © AFP via Getty Images

Neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Luis Suárez plays for a club but their countries are not letting that get in the way of a place in the starting 11.

Ronaldo, 37, is two years older than Suárez. Yet Portugal and Uruguay are putting their faith in the ageing superstars despite evidence that their once-prolific forwards are in decline.

Suárez failed to muster a shot against South Korea. Ronaldo became the first man to score in five World Cups, but he required a penalty against Ghana after missing his chances from open play.

At this stage of their careers, Ronaldo and Suárez require their teammates to do the hard running. The question is if these legends can turn on the style and prove decisive once more — or if their teams will count the cost of their refusal to move on.

Read Simon Kuper’s piece on the end of the era here.

Fixture list:

Cameroon vs Serbia, 10am UK time/1pm Doha time

South Korea vs Ghana, 1pm UK time/4pm Doha time

Brazil vs Switzerland, 4pm UK time/7pm Doha time

Portugal vs Uruguay, 7pm UK time/10pm Doha time

Weekend highlight: Messi breathes life into Argentina

Lionel Messi
Argentina and Lionel Messi live to fight another day © Mohamed Messara/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Argentina were poor against Saudi Arabia. For much of the game against Mexico on Saturday night, they were not much better. But they have Lionel Messi.

After just over an hour, Argentina’s No. 10 pulled off a little bit of magic to break the deadlock and lift the weight from his teammates’ shoulders. The atmosphere inside the Lusail stadium — Qatar’s flagship arena — was electric, with almost 90,000 fans crammed inside.

So, after a real scare, Argentina live to fight another day. Specifically Wednesday, when they face Poland. With Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Poland all notching up a win in their opening two games, this group looks set to finish with a flourish.

Sunday’s results:

Japan 0 Costa Rica 1

Croatia 4 Canada 1

Belgium 0 Morocco 2

Spain 1 Germany 1

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