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regular-article-logo Monday, 26 February 2024

Morocco leap over all odds to reach semi-finals

For the first time in history, an African team is in semis

Angshuman Roy Doha Published 11.12.22, 04:02 AM
Youssef En-Nesyri.

Youssef En-Nesyri. Twitter/@EnNesyriActu

The Al Thumama Stadium was still bouncing long after Argentine referee Facundo Tello blew the final whistle and the Moroccan fans were pinching themselves to make sure it was not a dream.

For the first time in history, an African team is in the semi-finals. It’s a surreal moment for many.

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Portugal joined the long list of casualties as the Moroccan caravan continued to push forward leaving some of the heavyweights of world football in their wake. The 1-0 victory will go down in the history of world football as one of the most memorable matches.

A long time ago the legendary Pele had dreamt of a World Cup champion side from Africa. Would that be possible now? A couple of wins from here on and Morocco may do that.

The smiling faces of coach Walid Regragui, Achraf Hakimi, Hakim Ziyech, and Yassine Bounou and the cheers of the crowd in the stands make you feel that if they do manage to hold aloft the World Cup, it would not be a surprise.

This Morocco will make you fall for them. The fans, the deafening whistles, the chants, the beating of the drums and, on the field, playing without fear, giving a damn to the hierarchy in world football — it’s a heady mix. The paradigm shift towards Africa is happening and Morocco, carrying the expectations of the continent, have made a statement loud and clear in the Arabian desert. The Moroccan fans made up 80 per cent of the stadium attendance and that once again gave their players a feel of home.

Placed in a group that had Croatia, Belgium and Canada, nobody gave Morocco a chance to qualify. Yet they topped the group, unbeaten. Spain came and booked an early flight home, and on Saturday, it was Portugal.

As Morocco were celebrating on the field, Cristiano Ronaldo, in his last World Cup, was walking back to the dressing room crying inconsolably, Joao Felix, so brilliant yet unlucky at least twice to miss the target, looked dejected, Bernardo Silva gave a blank look. Loaded with talent, Portugal were expected to do something great in this World Cup, but then they ran into Morocco.

With each game, Morocco have grown in confidence and on Saturday, not for once they looked like a team playing a quarter-final match for the first time in the World Cup. With a clutch of technically brilliant players, they showed the desire to excel. They believed in themselves and matched Portugal at every step. It’s no longer those days when Europeans would run you over just by the weight of their achievements. Now Africa and Asia are making a lot of noise.

The fans behind both the goals were jumping throughout the match and when Youssef En-Nesyri leapt high to bury his header, off an Attiat-Allah Yahya centre from the left, past a mistake-prone Diogo Costa and Ruben Dias to give Morocco the lead, the fans also seemed to have jumped as high as the Sevilla forward. That was three minutes before half-time.

Just after the goal Portugal almost levelled the score. It was a piece of individual brilliance from Bruno Fernandes, but his attempt from the tightest of angles came back off the bar.

On the hour mark, Cristiano Ronaldo, coming in place of Ruben Neves nine minutes earlier, got a ball in a favourable position but he flunked. And the whistles from the Moroccan fans were so loud that you could have heard it from Rabat. Then a Fernandez shot flew over the Morocco post.

The whistles grew louder at Al Thumama as time went by. After a smart build-up with Ronaldo, Joao Felix unleashed a booming drive which was going into the top corner. But Morocco goalkeeper Bounou brilliantly fisted it away flinging himself to the right. Ronaldo then found himself in front of the goal, but the attempt was poor. Soon, Pepe missed a free header from a handshaking distance.

On the other side, Walid Cheddira got the marching orders for a double yellow. The substitute who comes in to run the opposition ragged will miss the semi-final.

Long after the match, Bounou came to the field with his children. Probably they wanted to get a feel of the area his father ruled. The crowd cheered them on, Bounou waved at them. They will be back again next week at the Al Bayt Stadium. The African dream lives on.

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