By STEVE DOUGLAS, AP Sportswriter
AL KHOR, Qatar — France and Kylian Mbappé are headed back to the World Cup final for a much-anticipated matchup with Lionel Messi after ending Morocco’s historic run at soccer’s biggest tournament.
France beat Africa’s first ever semifinalist 2-0 Wednesday, with Mbappé playing a part in goals by Theo Hernandez in the fifth minute and then substitute Randal Kolo Muani in the 79th.
France will head into Sunday’s title match against Argentina looking to become the first team to retain the World Cup title since Brazil in 1962. Mbappé has the chance to cement his status as soccer’s new superstar when he comes up against the 35-year-old Messi, who has dominated the game with Cristiano Ronaldo for the past 15 years.
There will be no team from the Arab world in the final of the first World Cup in the Middle East, a prospect that seemed nigh impossible before the tournament yet nearly happened in Qatar.
Morocco broke ground for Africa and generated an outpouring of pride among Arab nations after topping a group containing Croatia and Belgium and eliminating two more European powers — Spain and Portugal — in the knockout stage. Their players gave France a far-from-easy ride, too, before collapsing on the ground in despair after the final whistle.
Remarkably, Hernandez’s goal was the first scored against them by an opposition player in the tournament — the other had been an own-goal — and came amid defensive rearrangement forced by injuries to Morocco’s two best center backs. Nayef Aguerd competed in the warmup but didn’t come out for kickoff, while captain Romain Saiss lasted only 21 minutes before limping off with a hamstring injury.
Mbappé helped to create the goal because his shot deflected off a defender and into the path of Hernandez, who let the ball bounce before driving a downward effort into the net from an tight angle.
Typically a defense-first team, Morocco was forced to come out and play and, roared on by tens of thousands of fans who dominated the 60,000-seat Al Bayt Stadium, the team penned back France.
Jawad El Yamiq hit the post with an overhead kick in the 44th minute and France’s defenders had to make a number of last-ditch tackles in front of their own goal.
Mbappé enjoyed more space as Morocco tired and, after dribbling past two defenders, his deflected shot was tapped in by Kolo Muani, who had been on the field for less than a minute.
The goal was celebrated in the VIP seats by French President Emmanuel Macron, who flew in for the match and had earlier visited the Souq Waqif bazaar in Doha before traveling to the stadium.
Mbappé is France’s leader on the soccer field and although he was kept relatively quiet by Morocco right back Achraf Hakimi — his teammate at Paris Saint-Germain — he showed glimpses of his skills and lethal pace, including a 60-meter run down the left that had supporters out of their seats.
At the end, Mbappé consoled a distraught Hakimi and they swapped jerseys before France’s players ran in a line toward their small pocket of fans behind one of the goals.
France will be competing in the final for the fourth time in the last seven World Cups.
The World Cup trophy isn’t the only thing at stake on Sunday. Messi and Mbappé are tied as the leading scorers with five goals as they chase the Golden Boot award.
Morocco’s World Cup isn’t over. The team will play the third-place playoff match against Croatia at Khalifa International Stadium on Saturday.