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Ricardo Guerra – Qatar 2022 semi-finals: The will to never surrender

In our postmodern, image-focused age, in which each individual may imagine himself at the center of the universe, limelight-craving divas can be found in many professions.

Soccer is no exception. Many of the teams that competed in this year’s World Cup seemed to be possessed by some of these self-obsessed individuals.

As we have witnessed during this World Cup, no matter how technically gifted such individuals may be, they are detrimental to the cohesive dynamic of a squad, sapping team morale and the collective spirit of a group of players.

At times, their presence can even fracture a group during a game, preventing them from achieving their objectives on the pitch.

Yet to lead a team to victory, a head coach must motivate them to function as a whole, subsuming their individual desires to the needs of the group.

Thus one of the greatest challenges facing any head coach in professional sports today is managing the various personalities that make up a team and finding a way to help them cohere. In a group of players with egotistical tendencies, it can be a huge challenge to foster a cooperative mindset.

A high-pressure situation like the World Cup makes it even more essential to keep players’ narcissism in check.

Many teams are psychologically rudderless, managed by head coaches unable to inspire players to move beyond the needs of the ego and transcend the banalities that consume them on and off the field.

These coaches fail to put the needs of the collective above those of the self-absorbed few, whether because they lack the pedagogical skills to make their players evolve spiritually, fear rocking the boat by confronting these difficult personalities, or have their own selfish reasons for sitting idly by while the inmates run the cell block.

Some of these so-called coaches continue to make the same mistakes despite having managed teams in previous World Cups.

As can be expected, the teams composed of difficult personalities—even those awash in individual talent—have already departed from the competition.

The squads that remain in the tournament are mostly the blue-collar, hard-nosed groups characterized by grit and a refusal to surrender.

The players on these teams present a stark contrast to the divas who have already departed from Qatar, dragging with them their entourages of professionals who handle the makeup, Botox and hair colors.

Perhaps these folks would be more in their element performing in individual stage contests.

The four remaining squads—Argentina, Croatia, Morocco and France—all display a high level of cohesion, determination and unwillingness to accept defeat.

These teams are marked by players in communion with each other, pursuing group objectives that transcend the desires of any single player.

Will, the psychological fortitude of a given team or player, is one of the most difficult and least quantifiable elements in sports

Football experts and pundits often take into account elements such as individual talent, technique, fitness and tactical prowess, but many observers of the game let will slip by unnoticed, perhaps because it is observed best in times of tribulation, defeat or extreme adversity—that is, when a team is under the gun. Because we tend to focus on the winners rather than the losers of any given match, any positive aspect that the losing team displays frequently goes unnoticed.

Compare the massive motivating force of will with the superfluous concerns that run amok in other squads both on and off the pitch, from media appearances to endorsement contracts to starting positions.

A scattered focus made up of competing individual desires leads to anarchy in the locker room and is anathema to the team’s success.

Much credit must be given to Argentinian coach Scaloni, a leader able to instill camaraderie and cohesion among his players, characteristics missing in the squad that played in the last World Cup in Russia.

The Argentinians’ unity and team spirit were clear for all to see after overtime. As the local newspapers in Argentina reported, all players stepped up to the plate and volunteered to take the penalty kicks that would decide the result of the match.

They acted in unison, every teammate willing to take the risk for the others despite all that transpired during a match interspersed with sporadic conflicts. In a similar manner, Messi ran to embrace Emiliano Martínez, who lay on the pitch crying, overwhelmed by emotion after his heroic performance during the game.

Martínez, the goalkeeper, was celebrated by all following the victory achieved through penalty kicks against Holland.

Argentina’s current team displays a cohesive mentality and a level of selflessness absent from recent national teams that have competed in the World Cup. Although their collective focus has helped them reach this point, the semifinal against Croatia will still be an uphill battle.

Even though the Croatians are coming into their semifinal match against Argentina having played two grueling bouts of overtime, first against Japan in the Round of 16 and next against Brazil in the quarterfinals, they are a force to be reckoned with.

In their game against Brazil, they were often in control of the match, and they never surrendered once they were down in the score.

The Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić has clearly changed course after the group phase by forgoing the frenzied, high-tempo game Croatia had been playing. Starting in the Round of 16, they have adopted more elements of Systemic Economical Cohesive Play (SECP). Consequently, their strategy has become more nuanced, with a more balanced intensity.

They are not pressing as deeply, and they have at times intentionally slowed down the pace of their game. They have reaped the benefits of this newfound restraint.

The Croatians are a team with a lot of personality and a strong identity. Their cohesion may have roots in their country’s history, forged from the conflict that followed the geographic disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Luka Modrić, one of the most gifted and technical players in the world, in addition to being one of the most intelligent on the pitch, has spoken about how the killing of his beloved grandfather by a group of Chetniks has shaped his character.

Other players have directly or indirectly faced the trauma of such historic events. Undoubtedly, it would be a challenge to find a collective experience that could more powerfully galvanize a group of men to accomplish extraordinary feats.

The Croatians have already shown plenty of grit, determination and mettle during the competition. No matter who wins the semifinal match, they have already defied the odds by advancing this far in the competition.

Given that the present squad is comprised of significantly different players from those who played in the finals against France during the previous World Cup in Russia, credit for their success should be given to the leadership of their head coach.

The French are the French.

As the defending champions, they have already shown the strength of their football coaching system and philosophy. In this year’s competition, they may be the most all-around balanced squad, able to perform all aspects of the game in equally satisfactory fashion.

This balance may pay dividends in the end. But first, they need to pass through the rock-solid Morocco squad.

Morocco is tactically flawless when it comes to their defensive scheme.

They play compactly and in unison, in close proximity to one another. To be more precise, they play selflessly, for each other and in support of each other.

The Moroccans have played valiant defense in all their matches, conceding only one goal so far in the competition. At the forefront of their defensive line is Sofyan Amrabat, the symbol of the so-far-successful defensive scheme that is the hallmark of the Moroccans.

Amrabat is the embodiment of the Moroccan side’s duality: He has the power and vitality of a bulldozer and the finesse of a Rolls-Royce, and he can use whichever part of himself is more suitable for any given play.

He patrols the territory in front of his goal as if it were the door to his castle, relentlessly applying his vigorous and precise tackling functions in tandem with his superb technical distributive technique.

His overall play is reminiscent of the great Brazilian defending midfielder Mauro Silva and of the late, great Colombian player Freddy Rincón. It’s a pleasure to watch Amrabat play.

No other player better embodies the ferocity of the Moroccan defense.

In addition, there is one very powerful element that defines the Moroccan side, one that tends to be overlooked by western mainstream media: the religious identity of the team is unique, singular and a force to be reckoned with.

A shared belief system is a powerful mechanism for instilling cohesion and a collective identity in a team.

The unity derived from their shared religion is on display when the players of the squad prostrate themselves in prayer following their victories.

Likewise, right before their penalty kicks against Spain, the whole team recited the Surah Al-Fatiha in the team huddle. The Moroccan identity is crystal clear, forged and anchored on their faith.

It is an ineradicable faith that has been tested by prejudice and shown to be resilient, providing a powerful bond between members of the squad.

It is difficult to predict the outcome of these two semifinal matches.

As we have moved through the final rounds of the competition, we have witnessed close game after close game, a testament to the parity between these teams.

During the second round of the World Cup and the semifinal matches, one game can mean the difference between going on to win or going home, and in such a scenario, anything can happen.

Nevertheless, a team’s success or failure may come down to their collective will.

Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who endured the grueling horrors of a concentration camp during World War II, wrote that the prisoners who saved themselves from those hellish conditions were not necessarily the physically strongest ones, or the ones with the most culture, or the ones most generally prepared. Instead, the ones who survived were those whose motivation transcended the self, whether it rested in the hope of seeing a child again or of being able to write a book documenting what transpired in those deplorable circumstances.

The semifinals will be a battle of wills. The team that can subjugate to the fullest the egotism so prevalent in professional sports and instead elevate the needs of the group may be the ones to advance to the finals.

Lifting the coveted World Cup trophy may just be reserved for the group of men who believe more strongly than the others that they are battling for a cause greater than themselves.

Ricardo Guerra is an exercise physiologist working with professional soccer teams. He has a Master of Science degree in sports physiology from the Liverpool John Moores University.

He has worked with several football clubs in the Middle East and Europe, including the Egyptian and Qatari national teams. In 2015, he was the exercise physiologist of Olympique de Marseille when they reached the final of the French Cup against PSG. Ricardo holds the highest coaching license of the Football Association (England) and a UEFA license. He is a Ph.D. candidate and the author of two upcoming books. He can be contacted at

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