The quarter-finals are about to begin and the world is talking about Morocco. For the fourth time an African nation and for the first time an Arab nation is among the last eight. Geographically, this is true, but in terms of football culture Morocco is European. One of the stars, Achraf Hakimi of Paris Saint-Germain, was born in Madrid and played in Real’s youth teams. The other, Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech, grew up in the Netherlands and made his name di lui at Ajax.
Morocco, whose coast can be easily seen from Andalucía, has adapted its football to the Spanish rondo style. The players are light-footed, agile, flexible, technically good. The team defend with dedication, counter with courage. “We have to copy the game of the Europeans,” says Morocco’s coach, Walid Regragui, “and bring in our own values.” Morocco knocked out Spain in the last 16.
Spain and Germany are out, Italy are not even in the tournament – three of the five European world champions are watching at home. Nevertheless, Europe has prevailed in Qatar. Almost all the important players of the eight remaining teams are employed by European clubs, shaped by the intense competition there.
Also in the running are Argentina and Brazil, the two South American giants who haven’t won a title in a long time but who are always strong. So the world hasn’t changed into football. Morocco are the – not so huge – surprise that always happens and that adds to the already great appeal of football.
For me, Argentina are the ultimate in this World Cup. All the players have mastered the basic virtue of football: one-on-one, defensively and offensively, aggressively but fairly. These individual skills, which have been lost sight of in the debates about tactics and systems, are what count if you want to win. The Argentinian players show unconditional intensity. They form a unit with the many fans because they see that there is a team on the pitch. You can see why they play football.
The coach, Lionel Scaloni, has everything under control. Normally, national teams are less orderly because they rarely train together. But Argentina perform harmoniously like a club team in Champions League form. Their plan: to constantly win the ball and defend forward. It’s a defensive idea, but designed to be proactive. Because Argentina can also keep the ball.
In addition, Scaloni has thought about how to integrate the outstanding class of the 35-year-old Lionel Messi. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he told how he deliberately did without Messi at the beginning of his time in charge so the team could find their way without the star. Then he integrated him.
Argentina and Messi have found an unusual and exciting division of labour. In 2014, when they lost to us in the Maracana final, his teammates seemed to be waiting for him to solve everything on his own. In 2022, they are playing for him and he is bidding his time. Such stories produce added value beyond sporting.
And Scaloni shows what leadership with expertise means. He can be expected to coach a major European club at some point. The Iberian culture of ball possession, coupled with the mentality of South America – there could hardly be anything better in world football.
Europe can certainly learn something from Argentina and South America. Germany have a lot of talent but lack order and a plan. Italy are the opposite: the structure is there but they lack daring and action on the offensive. Spain have a superior style, but the desire to go one-on-one is somewhat lacking and so is fighting back, leaving a not-with-us feeling. In Qatar, Spain played rondo, which, as we know, does not involve scoring goals. Football is child’s play, they say in Germany, because all you need is a ball and two school bags as posts. In Spain, you don’t even need the school bags.
But it is nice and attractive to play off the opponent or to take the ball from him, not to let him pass you, for players and fans. Morocco will show it in the quarter-final against Portugal again. Football is a game of combat.
Those missing from the quarter-finals are the hosts of the 2026 World Cup, which will again take place not in Europe, but in three emerging football countries. Mexico, hosts in 1970 and 1986, want a new impetus; in the USA football is taking deeper roots because of demographic developments related to the increase in Hispanic people; and in Canada it is on the rise. Such developments should be strengthened by holding tournaments there and allowing Europe to take its football culture to the world.
Football can have a democratic effect. The game involves many more people than tennis or volleyball, is less prone to injuries than American football and is simply great fun. A second big football market could emerge in North America. This could in turn influence South America, and it would be a new competitor for Europe.
Philipp Lahm’s column was produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Time Onlinethe German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries