Africa has its World Cup semi-finalists, and the tournament has its new heroes. Morocco have broken through thanks to Youssef En-Nesyri’s historic leap, but this was a victory delivered by the efforts of a sensational team. They have already conquered a part of of Europe, in knocking out Belgium, Spain and now Portugal. One of France or England will wait in the semi-final and on this evidence, neither will find the task of breaking down Morocco’s red wall any easier.
It is an improbable and astonishing achievement. Even at the first World Cup in history to be held in an Arab country, the idea of a team from the region leading a charge towards the latter stages of the tournament was barely considered. Few who endured Morocco’s goalless draw with Croatia could have possibly imagined that they were watching two semi-finalists.
The two nations punching well above their weight share plenty in common. Morocco’s squad do not have the same level of experience as Croatia but they have made up for it in their commitment and discipline. Backed by the whistles and jeers from the Morocco support, Walid Regragui’s side shuttled from side to side, grinding Portugal’s collection of star forwards down into a frustrated, panicked pack of individuals. Portugal would have known what to expect but the reality of what it requires to breach Morocco’s defence hits much harder when faced with the cauldron of red noise that Qatar has become.
Morocco’s strength is within the collective but individually there was an abundance of gargantuan efforts. Achraf Hakimi was immense with his one-man raids down the right. Hakim Ziyech brought quality touches to slow Morocco down. Azzedine Ounahi, in midfield, might still be running. Romain Saiss helped to drag Morocco to penalties against Spain as he defended on one hamstring. He was forced off here after trying to battle on, and his withdrawal just before the hour left Morocco with just Hakimi remaining from the back four who started against Spain. Jawad El Yamiq, Achraf Dari, and Attiat Allah stood strong when they were called upon.
This was a victory enabled by the workrate of several unsung heroes, who game-by-game have worked themselves into the position of World Cup semi-finalists. Sofyan Amrabat’s performance against Spain earned comparisons to memes of Terry Crews, as he held down Pedri, Gavi and Sergio Busquets with one bulging arm. Against Portugal he occupied a crater of space in front of the Moroccan back four. Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix and Bernardo Silva dipped into the gaps but found nothing but Amrabat’s snapping tackles. Each was forced to drop deeper and deeper, their tempers rising.
Morocco found comfort and protection in their shell but they won this game because of the risks they took when they emerged. To add to their low-block defensive shape Morocco brought brave passing from deep, drawing their opponents in. Hakimi sucked Portugal into his right back position, and then Ziyech would switch play to the left. Sofiane Boufal ducked and danced inside, leaving space for replacement left back Attiat Allah on the wing. A glorious chance was slashed wide, before then Attiat Allah crossed for En-Nesyri’s gravity-defying leap.
Morocco have been the masters of efficiency in Qatar. It was En-Nesyri’s third attempt on target at the World Cup, and it produced his third goal of these finals. And once they had their goal, they survived. Felix should have done better with a free header inside five minutes, as Bono made his first vital important save. Fernandes smacked the bar in a rare moment of individual inspiration. Goncalo Ramos, subdued on his second international start following a World Cup hat-trick in his first, headed well wide before Fernandes fired over again. Ronaldo, brought on from the bench, barely saw the ball until he teed up Felix, who was denied by the most sensational of stops from Bono.
By the end, Pepe’s missed header at the back post was the moment of luck they needed. You could tell Morocco’s relief by the kiss El Yamiq planted on the top of Pepe’s head.
It re-wrote World Cup quarter-final history. Cameroon were beaten by England after extra time in 1990. Senegal reached the same point in their defeat to Turkey in 2002. Ghana were denied by Uruguay on penalties in 2010, and there had not been an opportunity for a team to forge new ground since. Morocco has now achieved what a continent has dreamed of, and it is a victory delivered by standing on the shoulders of giants.
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