DOHA, Qatar — Another step for Morocco, another step for the Arab world, another push to a new frontier for North Africa. Morocco’s reputation-shredding journey through the World Cup has now felled another European giant.
After sending the Arab world into a state of ecstasy that it had previously never experienced, Morocco’s soccer team did so once more. In a display of defensive grit and ice-cold nerves, the Moroccans are now barely believable qualifiers for the semifinals, adding Portugal to a list of major European nations it has dumped out of the World Cup on its thrilling joyride through Qatar.
Having never previously been in contention for soccer’s biggest prize, Morocco is now just one game from a place in the final, having seen off Belgium, Spain and now Portugal, thanks to a first-half goal from Youssef En-Nesyri on Saturday. It is now also the first African team to make the semifinals, where it will meet either England or France.
“Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming,” Bono, the Morocco goalkeeper, said after the game. “These moments are great but we’re here to change the mentality. With this feeling of inferiority, we have to get rid of it. The Moroccan player can face any in the world. The generation coming after us will know we can create miracles.”
Morocco’s s torybook run has seen millions of Arabs, Muslims and North Africans coalesce behind a single team in a way that this tournament has not seen. That fanatical support was in full display inside the Al Thumama Stadium, which for 90 minutes (plus eight minutes of heart-stopping injury time) resembled a corner of Casablanca, Rabat or Marrakesh. Every period of Portuguese possession was met with ear-piercing whistles, and every Moroccan incursion the other way greeted with the type of boisterous cheering that threatened to pull the ball into the Portuguese net.
While Morocco celebrates its victory and ponders the next step of its magical journey, the victory almost certainly means the end of an era.
Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in Qatar as one of the most famous men on the planet, one of the best players to play soccer in any era. But he also arrived as an awkward tourist, having burned his bridges and been dumped by Manchester United. He found his place in Portugal’s starting lineup, a position that he had gripped for nearly two decades, under scrutiny and then ripped away by the time Portugal reached the round of 16.
Against Switzerland Ronaldo watched as his young replacement, Gonçalo Ramos, announced himself with a stunning hat trick, producing the credentials that immediately installed the Benfica forward as an heir apparent.
But against Morocco, with an iron-willed defense that has still only been breached once in this World Cup, Ramos and the Portuguese wilted as the wall of whistles reached fever pitch and stayed there. Ronaldo entered the stage with 40 minutes left to go, a platform to produce one more heroic act, a final cinematic moment in a career filled with cinematic moments.
At the point of an attack that featured a line of four forwards in ever more desperate attempts to break Moroccan resistance, Ronaldo could not bend the World Cup to his will. He ran, he chased balls in behind, he leaped to try and get his head to balls, he tried to find shooting angles, everything and anything to break the redshirted line of Moroccan barrier.
So did his teammates. But nothing worked. Shots were blocked, tackles were made as Moroccan numbers seemingly multiplied in the face of incessant waves of Portuguese attacks.
Portugal simply could not get the ball to break for it in the way Morocco had in that one first half moment where the air in the stadium stilled, where the ball hung in the air for what seemed like an age, before being met by En-Nesyri.
The tall striker timed his run to perfection, meeting the hopeful cross from Yahia Attiyat Allah just a fraction of a second before goalkeeper Diogo Costa could get his hand on it.
It was in the aftermath of that goal when Morocco let its guard down for the only time in the game, allowing the ball to ricochet dangerously close to its goal. Portugal almost went level in that moment, with midfielder Bruno Fernandes hitting a strike from an improbable angle that came crashing off the bar.
That was as close as Morocco would let Portugal get. It regrouped and formed the impenetrable barrier that had pushed it further and further in the competition.
There would be near misses; it was Portugal after all. There were last gasp challenges, stretched limbs that just deflected balls away. And then when those were not enough, there was Bono — the Moroccan goalkeeper with the rock star’s name refused to be beaten.
By the final minutes of the game, Morocco was reduced to 10 men with the substitute Walid Cheddira collecting two yellow cards in quick succession, but Morocco refused to distracted from the task at hand. The final seconds were a blur played against the sound of whistling that threatened to make the ears bleed. And then, came the whistle that mattered.
While his teammates sank to their knees, Ronaldo brushed aside the good wishes of two Moroccan players and headed straight toward the tunnel, wiping away tears with his jersey. Morocco, swept up by the bedlam, summoned one final reserve of energy to embark in celebrations that will live long in memory. The team charged toward its fans massed behind the goal that refused to be breached, lifting their arms into the air, milking a moment that only the most optimistic member of its squad could have deemed possible when the journey began last month.
While one hero departs soccer’s biggest stage, the World Cup has given birth to a team of heroes for the Arab world. Morocco is not ready to say goodbye.