The many and obvious sorrows of this Qatar World Cup, which culminated with the death of the very gifted Grant Wahl Friday, are likely to last well after all reasonable people wrestle with their guilty consciences. It’s the games’ strange job of redeeming all the ugliness that goes into the larger event. That’s probably too high a bar to raise given the weight of all this horror, but there are moments that can elevate the bitter to the bittersweet, and if there’s a better one to be found than the Moroccan Jawad El Yamiq kissing Portugal’s Pepe on the head after his terrible miss at the end of Morocco’s 1-0 win over Portugal. . . well, there isn’t. It’s the kind of thing that can save the World Cup, if anything can.
Morocco reaching the semi-final of a World Cup that includes Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Luka Modric is glorious enough for people who love their big events with a deeply unlikely taste, but the moment that will resonate most profoundly is this one, two minutes from the end of the match. Portugal, frantic to equalise, received a cross from shrunken-headed Rafael Leão (look at his steaming skull to get a better idea of what shrunken means) old (he’s 39, for god’s sake ) from the wonderfully cantankerous Pepe, who nodded right next to the Atlas Lions’ miraculous keeper, Yassine Bounou.
It was then that El Yamiq decided he had found the perfect time to get cheeky with a guy known for his ostentatious punishments, both punitive and unprovoked. In thanks for his team’s good fortune, El Yamiq put one on Pepe’s head. The gesture came so far from Bizarro World that Pepe didn’t even react. He could not. He’s a man who could kill with a single frown, but he apparently couldn’t deal with an opponent who locked his lips in thanks for his inaccuracy, and walked away with only his stunned expression. It’s either a testament to his own self-devouring agony, El Yamiq’s mischievous brass, or maybe both.
Imagine Zion Williamson dropping one on Chris Paul rather than the 360 dunk he used to punctuate New Orleans’ 128-117 win over Phoenix Friday. Do you think that instead of the hyperactive hubbub that would ensue, this game wouldn’t have ended with punches being thrown from multiple hands? Imagine Dallas’ Tyler Seguin falling to Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk after his game-winning overtime game on Thursday. Think the sticks aren’t being swung as the cops bide their time and wait for a calmer moment to intervene? You think the Las Vegas Raiders wouldn’t have exercised their (a lot a lot) frustrations on Baker Mayfield if the rookie Los Angeles Rams quarterback had let go of Maxx Crosby after his game-winning touchdown pass to Van Jefferson on Thursday night? They would fight again this morning over juice and sausage rolls.
The story of Morocco’s unforeseen advance to the semi-finals testifies to the value of a cohesive team playing together against its best; they celebrated by dancing the last moments of Cristiano Ronaldo’s significant career. The Moroccans have served their time as a solid unit of brilliant and tireless people never bowing to the inevitability of the most famous, although special citations can be issued to Bounou and superb midfielders Somyat Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi.
But the lasting memory is and will be El Yamiq and his impudent lips. There may never be another moment so puckish, so comedic, so unreservedly pure. This is because the moment itself is so big, but also because from this moment onwards losing players will be at least theoretically aware that there could be a winner lurking nearby with a penchant for make fun of osculation. Testosterone being the frothy hate juice that it is, the next kiss we see will likely be the precipitator of a hellish brawl in which the offensive yelp may end up flailing on the floor after being snatched from its owner in a flash of manic rage. Whether Pepe is somehow the author of this retribution will be a perpetual perplexity, as he would be among the most likely perpetrators. But the kiss has landed, and Morocco are in the semi-finals, so we’ll have to wait.
So whatever you take away from this World Cup, whether it’s joy, sadness or outrage, there will also be this kiss, and more a pity that Wahl was not there to write it . It’s a story many will tell, but one he was best built to write and will likely enjoy. So we will appreciate it for him.