World Cup 2022: Morocco and Argentina channel the spirit of 1986

As Julian Alvarez, the 22-year-old Argentinian forward, dribbled across half the pitch on Tuesday, dodging last-ditch tackles from Croatian defenders and latching onto a favourable deflection before dinking the ball past the goalkeeper, there was a sense that this had all happened before.

Alvarez’s goal in the 2022 World Cup semifinal was in many ways a more fortuitous version of that scored by Argentinian footballing legend Diego Maradona against England at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, in which he dribbled past half of the English defence before slotting it home and reeling off towards the stands in celebration.

Julian Alvarez
Julian Alvarez rode several challenges to put Argentina 2-0 up against Croatia on Tuesday [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

On Tuesday, Argentinian flags could be seen draped around Lusail Stadium bearing the iconic image of Maradona in 1986 – a tournament in which he guided La Albiceleste to World Cup victory.

Shades of 1986

As Alvarez celebrated with his teammates, Lionel Messi, Maradona’s successor as the icon of Argentinian football and one of the world’s greatest-ever players, put his arm around the forward. It seemed like history was repeating itself and their fans could feel it, chanting and cheering their team on long after the final whistle.

An Argentina fan holds a banner displaying an image of Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona at the semifinal between Argentina and Croatia [File: Lee Smith/Reuters]

The parallels between the two tournaments are not just confined to the Latin American team.

Morocco have arguably been the tournament’s greatest success story, making it to the semifinals for the first time in their history – and in the history of African and Arab nations at the World Cup. Before 2022, Moroccan football’s peak moment was in 1986.

After remaining undefeated in the group stage, they narrowly lost to a last-gasp goal from the eventual finalists, West Germany, in the round of 16.

morocco england
Morocco’s Mostafa El Biaz, left, tussles with England’s Bryan Robson, right, during the 1986 World Cup first-round match in Monterrey. The match ended in a scoreless draw [AFP]

Morocco boasted some fine defensive displays in Mexico, only conceding two goals in four games. This year they have bettered this record, only letting in one goal in five matches.

In 1986, Morocco knocked out Portugal by beating them 3-1 in the group stages; this year, they went one step further, eliminating two Iberian footballing giants – Portugal and Spain – in the knockout stages.

Morocco will face France in this year’s other semifinal, a team that also made it to the same stage in 1986, where they lost to West Germany.

morocco fans
Morocco, who remain undefeated at the 2022 World Cup have enjoyed a huge amount of support at the tournament, from their own fans and fans from other Arab nations [File: Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

How the two tournaments differ

As much as the two tournaments resonate with the two teams, there are some noticeable differences.

Unlike Morocco who have already gone further than they did 36 years ago, Argentina have yet to equal their historic World Cup win. They also lost their first match this year, a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia, whereas, in 1986, they remained unbeaten.

At the age of 35, Messi cannot compete with the surging, devastating pace of the 25-year-old Maradona who lit up the World Cup in 1986. However, the Paris Saint-Germain superstar has rolled back the years and netted five goals so far, the same number that Maradona scored in Mexico.

Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi played in the 2014 World Cup final which Argentian lost to Germany 1-0 [File: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Before the 2022 World Cup began, the 1986 tournament was the benchmark that every Moroccan and Argentine team wanted to emulate.

For many fans too young to remember the World Cup in Mexico, it was merely a great story from another era – a time when Maradona lit up the greatest footballing stage, and the Atlas Lions shocked the world by making it to the knockout stages.

The 2022 World Cup has already changed that for Morocco. Will it also do so for Argentina?

Source: Al Jazeera