There are sometimes meaningless games in the World Cup, toward the end of the group stage, and a soccer superpower having already qualified for the knockout stages facing off against an overmatched, busted out squad would seem to fit the bill, but contests are what you make of them, and Morocco decided to make something out of their last match in Russia, drawing Spain 2-2 on Monday night. (A scoreline that amply flattered La Roja.) A late goal from Iago Aspas that happened right around the same time Iran were putting themselves even with Portugal ended up helping Spain backdoor their way to the top of Group B. Anyway Spain, beyond living rooms in Madrid and Valencia, were not the protagonists in Kaliningrad. There’s more to come from them; hopefully it’s better than what they’ve given so far.
Morocco were heroic. They played beautifully. That is the word for it, though it’s not one that’s typically applied to teams that have twenty-five percent possession, commit seventeen fouls, pick up six yellow cards, and put eleven men behind the ball. If the Lions of the Atlas—African national squads always have such wonderful nicknames—had tried to play a conventionally beautiful game, they would have lost 5-1. Instead, they sought to survive and produced excitement when they could. They did this pretty damn capably. Early in the second half, Nordin Amrabat hit a swerving shot from the right wing that was inches away from skimming the underside of the crossbar and giving Morocco a 2-1 lead, and Youssef En-Nesyri turned himself into a dictionary-perfect diagram for the term towering header when he put his team up for real from their sole corner of the match.
There was no obvious reason for Morocco to play as bravely and delightfully as they did, other than the fact that this is one of the bigger audiences they’ll ever play in front of, since their players are from mid- and lower-table club sides like Schalke and Getafe and Caen. But that is probably not what moved them. It’s more likely that pride—perhaps national, but definitely personal—and the opportunity to, hey, give one of the best national sides in the world a hard time, was enticing enough to get them going. They made a choice to care about a match they could have merely slogged through, and everybody who watched them play benefitted from that investment.
On Tuesday, Denmark needed only a draw to secure second place in Group C and France were assured of going through. This scenario usually produces soccer that vacillates, like a dog traveling between napping spots, from extremely cautious to outright boring. The Danes didn’t want to give up a goal—even as Peru were handling Australia, so there was little danger of the Scandinavians losing their second place spot—and the French weren’t particularly interested in scoring one. They played flat one-twos straight into defenders. They overhit crosses. Didier Deschamps played some backups, gave a still-sorta-injured-looking Benjamin Mendy forty minutes in the second half, and hooked Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé early. Denmark passed between their center backs, launched the ball long, and jogged after it. The crowd whistled and booed. The cheapest seat in the house cost $105, and they would have been better served spending that money on literally anything else.
International soccer is its own, perpetually mildly disjointed thing. Even the elite teams don’t play as fluidly as, say, Barcelona or Juventus, and managers, because they don’t have lots of time with their players, tend toward tactical orthodoxy and lineup choice conservatism. What makes the World Cup great—what makes up for the slightly lacking performances—is its energy. Colombia’s 3-0 win over Poland, this past Sunday, wasn’t riveting all by itself because the Poles were impotent, but the crowd, judging by shirt color and noise produced, was about seventy percent pro-Colombia and they were ecstatically loud, losing their minds not just after goals, but simply at the sight of some tidy midfield play. They were so happy to be in attendance, and James and Falcao and Quintero were in top form, and those factors, in concert, made the game special.
We’ve gotten nearly all the way through the group stage without many inert stinkers, and that’s as it should be. As much as you’re capable of understanding why a match like France-Denmark might underwhelm—self-preservation, squad rotation, the lack of a clear objective—the World Cup is not such a long or grueling tournament that it isn’t immensely frustrating when teams don’t show up. Flags are waving in the stands; people are sobbing just at having the chance to be at the stadium. Nearly everyone is in a good mood and getting along (which is something that definitely cannot be said about club soccer). It’s a readymade recipe for an entertaining match, and all that needs to be added to it is a bit of effort and skill from the players.
To grasp that doesn’t seem so hard, though of course these games aren’t only about fun, especially for big national teams with high aspirations. But isn’t it thrilling when they’re treated that way? When glory is sought ninety minutes at a time, and the verve of the athletes and the crowd makes a match feel colossal, something worth waiting four years, perhaps traveling across the globe for. When the action lives up to the occasion, it’s a tremendous feeling. And when it doesn’t, you wonder why anyone has bothered.