By JENNA FRYER AP National Writer
The final day of the round of 16 concludes Tuesday at the World Cup when Morocco faces Spain, and Portugal goes head-to-head with Switzerland for the final two spots in the quarterfinals.
The results will be decided on the field, but for Spain and Morocco, the game will be played against the backdrop of the long and complex relationship between two border nations separated by the Strait of Gibraltar.
As neighboring nations, there are ties between the two teams, and many of Morocco’s players speak Spanish and the team’s medical staff is Spanish.
Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou and striker Youssef En-Nesyri both play in Spain for Sevilla, right back Achraf Hakimi, a Paris Saint-Germain player, was born in Madrid, and coach Walid Regragui played in Spain with Racing Santander.
The team’s also met in the World Cup just four years ago in the final group game in 2018, a 2-2 draw.
As Morocco advanced through this tournament, the national team captivated both its fans at home and Qatari, Saudi and Tunisians fans in Doha as the last Arab team still playing.
“Everyone wants to come to Doha,” said Regragui, who became coach in August. “We could fill two stadiums.”
Morocco is trying to secure its first appearance in the quarterfinals. The Atlas Lions topped Group F with a draw against Croatia, followed by wins over Belgium and Canada to reach the knockout round for the first time since 1986.
Not a single player on the current squad was born the last time Morocco advanced this deep into the tournament, and its run in Qatar has been a national source of pride back home.
Spain opened the World Cup with a 7-0 win over Croatia, followed by a 1-1 draw with Germany. The 2-1 loss to Japan in the final game of group play was tense as La Roja fluctuated between in and out of advancing into the next round because its fate was also tied to other results.
“The match against Japan has to serve as a lesson for what is to come. Luckily, that defeat has been resolved and we are clear about what we have to do,” Gavi said. “We are in the round of 16 and there are some very good teams that haven’t been able to do it. That’s why we have to really think that pressure is a privilege.”
The loss to Japan snapped a seven-game unbeaten streak for Spain and got the attention of its players.
“We are not going to lose focus on the goal, which is to win the World Cup,” Gavi said. “We are going to look for it by being faithful to what we have been doing all these years. It would be a mistake to give up everything we believe in.”
Spain also met Morocco in the teams’ final group game in 2018, which ended 2-2.
Morocco is trying to match the longest unbeaten run by an African team at the World Cup, a record set by Cameroon, which went unbeaten for five games between 1982 and 1990.
“We didn’t come just to say ‘oh, we almost got close’,” Regragui said. “We need to get the results as all the European or South American teams do. We need to emulate them.”
If Sergio Busquets plays for Spain, he would tie the national team’s World Cup record with 17 appearances, a mark shared by Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos.
Cristiano Ronaldo plays again in this World Cup when Portugal faces Switzerland for a spot in the quarterfinals, and all the attention is on the superstar.
And not really for the right reasons.
Following his split with Manchester United, there are rumors that Ronaldo could move to a Saudi Arabian club for an astronomical amount of money. He was criticized for the body language he exhibited when he was substituted in a match last week, and a poll in Portugal suggested fans in his home country don’t even want him part of the national team anymore.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos was unbothered by the poll and decisions that Ronaldo may make about his club career. After eight years as head of Portugal, Santos is used to the distractions that come from having a global giant on the roster.
But Ronaldo’s obvious displeasure with being taken out of the game in the 65th minute of a loss to South Korea? That irritated the coach, who wouldn’t say if Ronaldo will be captain against Switzerland on Tuesday.
“I didn’t like it, not at all. I really didn’t like it. We fixed that in-house and that’s it,” said Santos, who wouldn’t commit on Ronaldo’s status as captain against Switzerland.
“I only decide who’s going to be the captain when I reach the stadium. I don’t know what the lineup is,” Santos said.
Ronaldo opened the tournament by becoming the first player to score a goal at five World Cups. But there’s a blemish on his record — a fat zero in goals scored at the World Cup in the knockout stage. He heads into what is likely his final World Cup to play a Swiss team that hasn’t made it to the quarterfinals since 1954.
That doesn’t mean Switzerland can’t challenge Portugal. The Swiss eliminated reigning World Cup champion France in the last 16 at the European Championship last year and has been one of the most consistent teams of this tournament.
“We have seen how euphoric Swiss people are about being at this stage,” coach Murat Yakin said Monday. “We’ve proven that we’re able to beat them.”