CAPE TOWN - They may have lost - Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Iran - but I dare say the entire globe has a new-found respect for the football in those countries. Not just the football, by the way, but also their courage, commitment and the fearless manner in which they took to the challenge of facing football giants like Portugal, Uruguay and Spain.
Wednesday at Russia 2018 was a day for the underdog. In fact, it has to be said, that this has, so far, been a World Cup studded by performances in which teams regarded as “no-hopers” have risen to the occasion and played out of their skins.
Morocco have been desperately unlucky at this tournament. After losing to a late own goal against Iran, the north Africans outplayed the much-vaunted Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal. The Europeans weren’t allowed to play as the Moroccans hounded their every move and pressed and harried the man in possession. But, more than that, it was Morocco’s work on attack that was impressive; they had chances and, if they’d had more composure in the penalty area, things could've been different .
Iran? Put up your hand if you gave them any chance of coming away with their heads held high against a team as polished and classy as Spain? Okay, my hand is down. But, boy, was this Iranian side good. It wasn’t so much their brave and compact defensive work, the best they had to offer was, in fact, when they went 1-0 down. It was then that we saw they could actually play as well - and they had Spain in trouble on numerous occasions.
Unfortunately, and that is what the minnows have to understand about competition at this level, when you get an opportunity, you have to take it: because, if you don’t, the opposition will punish you. Iran deserve praise for what they have achieved in Russia - and, at the same time, let’s give some applause for the efforts of coach Carlos Queiroz. As the former Real Madrid coach said afterwards: “We lost 1-0, but we won respect; the players should be proud.” Enough said.
Saudi Arabia, after the opening game 5-0 defeat to hosts Russia, were expected to be mere cannon-fodder for a Uruguay side with a strike force as formidable as Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. But like so many of the lower-ranked teams have done, the Saudis ripped the script and produced a performance of grit and diligence all over the park. It was admirable stuff, indeed. So, forget that initial fiasco against Russia - chalk it down to opening-day jitters - and let’s rather evaluate Saudi Arabia’s football on that impressive display against Uruguay.
Each and every one of us has grown up with the fable of Cinderella; the tale of the unappreciated, downtrodden and taken-for-granted step-sister who emerges to become the belle of the ball. It’s a fantasy about the romance of courage, belief and the determination to never stop dreaming. We’ve certainly seen this Cinderella spirit, in spades, at the 2018 World Cup, from Mexico, Iceland, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Senegal. And so, as the tournament winds on, let’s hope for much more of the same.