Cristiano Ronaldo will never win the World Cup but an African team just might. A tournament that began with a historic feat by the only man to score in five World Cups now has another first and may yet end with a still greater achievement. Morocco have become Africa’s maiden semi-finalists and Walid Regragui, the manager who encouraged his country to dream, has given them reason to believe the greatest World Cup shock of all is possible.
Portugal join Spain among their victims. Like Belgium and Croatia before them, they were blunted by Moroccan obduracy, with the Atlas Lions’ fourth clean sheet the most remarkable: not because Ronaldo, the scorer of 819 career goals, came off the bench but because they ended with only Achraf Hakimi of their first-choice back four.
Resistance was allied with a goal that was celebrated far beyond Casablanca or Marrakesh. Morocco were willed on and whistled on, in effect the home side, representing the region of the Middle East as well as their own continent. As they succeeded where Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 could not and took African football to a new frontier, it was thanks to a centre-forward with no goals in La Liga this season.
But Youssef En-Nesyri has two in Qatar and the Sevilla striker’s second ranks as the most seismic ever for Morocco, even if only for another few days. It came courtesy of uncharacteristic confusion at the back from Portugal, but was a moment when an injury worked in Morocco’s favour.
Yahia Attiyat Allah was only playing because Noussair Mazraoui, arguably the outstanding left-back in the World Cup, was sidelined but when the Wydad AC defender crossed, Ruben Dias did not jump, goalkeeper Diogo Costa came for the ball and missed it and En-Nesyri headed in.
Given Morocco’s outstanding defensive record, it was essential Portugal scored first. They did not. There was almost an immediate equaliser, Bruno Fernandes had lost the ball for En-Nesyri’s goal but nearly made amends in spectacular style, striking the bar from an audacious half-volley from an acute angle on the right.
Ronaldo had been omitted again, with Goncalo Ramos preferred, but was brought on after 50 minutes, charged with being the rescuer. His chance came late, in injury time, but Bono blocked his shot and the sole survivor of Portugal’s last semi-final, back in 2006, could not oblige. As the often cautious Fernando Santos overloaded with attackers, Joao Felix came closest, drawing a flying save from Bono, and the Atletico Madrid forward’s elusiveness had meant he presented the greatest threat. Morocco arguably only switched off once, when Fernandes took a fifth-minute free kick and Bono had to save Felix’s diving header.
Yet Portugal only mustered three shots on target and if it was two more than Spain managed against Morocco in 120 minutes, it was inadequate. It was also testament to a colossal rearguard action by a depleted defence.
Morocco started without half their first-choice back four with Mazraoui and Nayef Aguerd injured. They lost a third member of the rearguard within an hour when captain Romain Saiss was stretchered off.
The faces changed but the ethos did not, with Jawad El Yamiq outstanding as Morocco remained defiant. Portugal found them far less accommodating than the Swiss side who conceded six. Ubiquitous then, Ramos was anonymous here, save for a moment when he headed wide. It is still the case the only player to score against Morocco this World Cup is one of their own, in the injured Aguerd. With every illustration of organisation, it became more apparent that Morocco are the best defensive side Africa has ever sent to a World Cup. Ragregui, who has only been in charge for three-and-a-half months, has done a stunning job in a short time. His players gave him the bumps after the final whistle.
It was a wonder they still had the strength. The last half-hour amounted to constant pressure. Morocco are not a possession team to begin with and they ended starved of the ball, camped in their own territory, with no one in attack. It was constant pressure with every clearance bringing roars of relief. Their one lapse was when the substitute Walid Cheddira collected a second caution for a foul on Felix. It could have cost his side – Pepe headed wide after 98 minutes – but then Morocco could have gained the luxury of a second goal, the replacement Zakaria Aboukhlal squandering a chance on the counter-attack.
It mattered not. The pitch invasion from the technical area at the final whistle told a tale; so, too, surely the loudest reaction heard anywhere in Qatar this month. Morocco, their diaspora and their wider band of supporters have brought much of the atmosphere. They have been the captivating story few expected. And so, 88 years after Egypt became the first African team in the World Cup, 52 after Morocco played in the tournament in Mexico, 32 after Cameroon reached the last eight. Africa has its first semi-finalists. And they will take some stopping.
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