A World Cup that began in controversy and uncertainty will end with history being made, though exactly what kind of history remains to be seen. Perennial favorites Germany, Belgium, England, Spain and now Brazil are out. Morocco, France, Croatia and Argentina remain.
France has a chance to become the first repeat winner in 60 years, but first it must get past Morocco, the only African team ever to reach the final four, in Wednesday’s semifinal. Messi, arguably the greatest player of his generation, could finally add a world championship to a resume that includes every other prize, but he and Argentina must first get past Croatia, the runner-up four years ago, in Tuesday’s semifinal.
Just a week ago the tournament seemed destined to end with top-ranked Brazil, the heavy favorite, rolling to another title. Now the tournament has two semifinals more wrought with uncertainty than an English penalty kick.
And for that you can thank the stray cat that wandered into a Brazilian press conference.
Cats are everywhere in Qatar, with some estimates putting the feline population on par with the human one. That’s partly because Qatar is a devout Muslim country and cats are revered in Islam. But it’s also because the country once had a severe rodent problem and thousands of cats were brought in to fix that.
Either way, they’ve clawed their way to prominence in the World Cup.
French winger Ousmane Dembele, for example, is a scaredy-cat, according to teammate Randal Kolo Muani, who said Dembele is frightened by the strays that roam the 33 acres surrounding France’s resort hotel in Doha. Meanwhile England defender Kyle Walker vowed to adopt a curious cat he and teammate John Stones named Dave. Since both Manchester City players live in Cheshire, when England entered the tournament quarterfinals unbeaten, the skinny gray-and-black-striped kitten seemed destined to become a Cheshire cat.
Alas, Dave was left to an uncertain fate after the Three Lions were eliminated after captain Harry Kane skied a potential game-tying try from the spot in Saturday’s quarterfinal loss to France, continuing England’s long and dreadful tradition of penalty-kick mishaps in major competitions.
But the most famous cat in Qatar is the one that leapt onto the table in front of Brazilian winger Vinicius Junior during an interview two days before Brazil’s quarterfinal showdown with Croatia. The Real Madrid star laughed at the cat’s brazenness, then appeared shocked when a team press officer grabbed the animal roughly with two hands and tossed it to the floor.
That proved to be a catastrophe and the response from animal rights groups and social media was predictably catty.
“What’s this guy’s problem?” PETA asked on Twitter. Two days later Croatia knocked Brazil out of the tournament on penalty kicks. Vinicius, who had a goal and two assists in Brazil’s first three games, appeared to go catatonic in the loss, taking just one shot on target before being subbed off in the 63rd minute, his shortest performance in this World Cup. Worse yet Rodrygo, the player who replaced him, opened the penalty shootout with a miss.
Minutes later Brazil’s World Cup was over.
Mistreating cats is a serious offense in Islam and fans were quick to blame the loss on cat karma. Portugal can blame its loss on Ronaldo, who became such a distraction, coach Fernando Santos kept him out of the starting lineup for the final two games, including Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Morocco. Ronaldo, international soccer’s all-time leading scorer, left the field alone and in tears afterward, his quest for a World Cup title having ended in embarrassment and disgrace.
“I do not regret it,” Santos said of his lineup choices. “It’s not that Ronaldo is no longer a great player. That has nothing to do with it.”
What it does have to do with, apparently, is Ronaldo’s reaction to being removed from the final group-stage game just after the hour mark. Portugal had already won the group and Santos removed three starters — including Ronaldo — in the 65th minute to rest them for the knockout rounds. Ronaldo muttered something to Santos as he exited, then threw his arms in the air before walking to the bench, where he sulked through the rest of the game.
Earlier in the tournament Ronaldo, nominally Portugal’s captain, claimed that a goal credited to teammate Bruno Fernandes really should have gone to him. Maybe there was karma involved there, too, since the demise of Portugal, which once ruled its African colonies with an iron fist, cleared the way for Morocco to become the first African nation to reach the World Cup semifinals.
And it did so during the first tournament held in an Arab country.
Morocco was given little chance to get out of a group that included Belgium and Croatia, top three teams four years ago. Instead, it won the group.
In the knockout stages it was given little chance against Spain, a former World Cup champion, and Ronaldo’s Portugal, ranked ninth in the world. It beat both and still has not allowed an opponent to score, conceding only an own goal in five games.
That success has inspired people in both Arab and African countries, as well as in other places with significant Moroccan populations.
“A victory for any Arab team is a victory for all Arabs,” said Nizar Ahmad, a 27-year-old nurse from Jordan who works in Qatar and is now a Moroccan fan.
In fact, most of the world should be cheering for Morocco, which is just the third country outside Europe and South America to reach the World Cup semifinals, following South Korea in 2002 and the U.S. in 1930. To become the first to reach the final it will have to beat France.
The countries have close ties since Morocco was a French protectorate until 1956 and three of its players, as well as its coach, were born in France. Four of its top players still play there. So Morocco will not catch the French by surprise.
"Few people expected to see Morocco in the semifinal, they have surprised everyone and have deserved to be there. No one can take that away from them," French coach Didier Deschamps said.
"They have played and beaten some of the best teams in the world. It is a historic achievement.”
Not if you’re Portugal or Brazil. For those two countries it was cataclysmic.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.