DOHA, Qatar — Another step for Morocco, another step for the Arab world, another step towards a new frontier for Africa. Morocco’s reputational journey through the World Cup has now downed another European giant.
After plunging the Arab world into a state of ecstasy it had never experienced before, Morocco’s football team has done it once again. In a display of defensive courage and icy nerves, the Moroccans are now unbelievable qualifiers for the semi-finals, adding Portugal to a list of great European nations they knocked out of the World Cup during their thrilling ride through Qatar.
Having never been in contention for football’s biggest prize, Morocco are just one game away from a place in the final, having beaten Belgium, Spain and now Portugal, thanks to a goal in the first half of Youssef En-Nesyri on Saturday. They are also the first African team to qualify for the semi-finals, where they will meet either England or France.
“Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming,” Moroccan goalkeeper Bono said after the game. “These moments are great, but we are here to change mentalities. With this feeling of inferiority, you have to get rid of it. The Moroccan player can face anyone in the world. The generation that will follow us will know that we can create miracles.
Morocco’s storytelling race saw millions of Arabs, Muslims and North Africans unite behind one team in a way this tournament has not seen. That fanatical support was on full display inside the Al Thumama stadium, which for 90 minutes (plus eight minutes of breathtaking added time) looked like a corner of Casablanca, Rabat or Marrakech. Every spell of Portuguese possession was met with shrill whistles, and every Moroccan foray in the other direction was met with the kind of loud cheers that threatened to fire the ball into the Portuguese net.
As Morocco celebrate their victory and ponder the next step in their magical journey, the result almost certainly means the end of an era.
A short guide to the 2022 World Cup
What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national football teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here is an introduction to the 2022 men’s tournament:
Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in Qatar as one of the most famous men on the planet, one of the best football players of all time. But he also arrived as a clumsy tourist, having burned his bridges and been dumped by Manchester United. He found his place in Portugal’s starting line-up, a position he had held for nearly two decades, under scrutiny and then snatched away by the time Portugal reached the knockout stages.
Against Switzerland, Ronaldo saw his young replacement Gonçalo Ramos announce himself with a superb hat-trick, producing the credentials that immediately installed the Benfica striker as heir apparent.
But against Morocco, with an ironclad defense yet to be breached only once in this World Cup, Ramos and the Portuguese faltered as the wall of whistles peaked and stayed there. Ronaldo entered the scene with 40 minutes to play, a platform to produce yet another heroic act, one final cinematic moment in a career filled with cinematic moments.
At the time of an attack that featured a line of four strikers in ever more desperate attempts to break through Moroccan resistance, Ronaldo could not bend the World Cup to his will. He ran, he chased bullets behind his back, he jumped to put his head in bullets, he tried to find shooting angles, anything and everything to break the red line of the Moroccan barrier .
His teammates too. But nothing worked. Shots were blocked, tackles were made as Moroccan numbers seemingly multiplied in the face of relentless waves of Portuguese attacks.
Portugal simply failed to pop the ball like Morocco did in that first half where the air in the stadium stopped, where the ball stayed in the air for that which seemed to be an age, before being met by the En-Nesyri.
The tall forward timed his run to perfection, meeting Yahia Attiyat Allah’s hopeful cross just a split second before goalkeeper Diogo Costa could get his hands on it.
It was the day after this goal that Morocco lowered their guard for the only time in the match, allowing the ball to ricochet dangerously close to their goal. Portugal nearly equalized then, with midfielder Bruno Fernandes hitting a shot from an unlikely angle that crashed into the bar.
It was as close as Morocco would let Portugal come. He regrouped and formed the impenetrable barrier that had pushed him further and further into the competition.
There would be near misses; it was Portugal after all. There were last gasp challenges, stretched limbs that only deflected bullets. And then, when that wasn’t enough, there was Bono — the Moroccan goalkeeper named after the rock star who refused to be beaten.
In the dying minutes of the match, Morocco were down to 10 men, with substitute Walid Cheddira picking up two yellow cards in quick succession. But Morocco refused to be distracted. The final seconds were a blur played against the sound of a hiss that threatened to make your ears bleed. And then came the whistle that counted.
As his teammates fell to their knees, Ronaldo brushed off the wishes of two Moroccan players and headed straight for the tunnel, wiping away tears with his jersey. Morocco, swept away by chaos, called on a last reserve of energy to launch into celebrations that will be remembered for a long time. The team charged at their massed fans behind the goal that refused to be breached, pulling off a moment that only the most optimistic member of their squad could have deemed possible when the journey began last month.
As a hero leaves football’s biggest stage, the World Cup has spawned a team of heroes for the Arab world. Morocco is not ready to say goodbye.