Morocco In Dreamland After Beating Portugal In World Cup Quarter-Finals


By John Duerden

The dream lives on and is stronger than ever after a beautiful, red-tinged evening in Doha.

This World Cup will be remembered more as the Morocco World Cup than the Qatar version after the Atlas Lions beat Portugal 1-0 on Saturday to move into the last four of the competion.

No Arab team has got close to such a stage before. Nobody can say now that Morocco are not capable of claiming the golden trophy. The question now is not if this unbelievable team, who have gone further in the tournament than Brazil, can actually lift the trophy, but who can stop them?  Not Belgium, Spain or Portugal. After five games, not a single opposition player has scored against them.

Head coach Walid Regragui and his stars will never forget Al-Thumama Stadium, a happy place where they defeated Belgium and then Canada in the group stage, and have now made it three from three. It is crazy, but they have won more World Cup games at this stadium than in their entire history in the competition.

If this was familiar territory for the team, the same could not be said of the quarterfinals, but this was a deserved win from a team that obviously knows how to defend, but are also capable of attacking at pace and with skill.

They have seen off the challenge from three major European powers, three teams seen as potential winners, and the thousands of fans in the area and millions at home have a side of which to be proud.

It was always going to be a tight affair, Portugal’s 6-1 thrashing of Switzerland on Tuesday notwithstanding. As had been mentioned time and again, the Moroccan defense had been breached just once in the eight previous games. Regragui may have been coach for just over three months, but the way the 47-year-old has organized the team, it feels like years. 

The unforgettable journey to the last four had taken its toll, however. Bayern Munich full-back Nasser Mazraoui did not make it and neither did West Ham center-back Nayef Aguerd. His partner in the backline, Romain Saiss, did start after a hamstring scare, but was strapped during the warm-up. It felt a little like this may be a game too far for the leader of the team.

Portugal started the brighter but could not find a way through, but as the game passed the half-hour mark, Morocco began to get on top and, suddenly, the match burst into life.

With three minutes of the first half remaining, the breakthrough came, almost from nothing. Yahia Attiyat Allah, in for Mazraoui, swung over a cross from the left. Goalkeeper Diogo Costa came and got nowhere and there was En-Nesyri, leaping as high into the air as Cristiano Ronaldo did at his peak, to head into an empty net.

It was the first goal ever scored by the country in the knockout stages. As anyone who had seen any action in this World Cup would expect, the army of Moroccan fans went crazy.

The Europeans, stung into action, almost hit back immediately in spectacular fashion as Bruno Fernandes fired a half-volley from outside the area over goalkeeper Yassine Bounou and back off the crossbar. Within moments, Morocco again broke at speed down the left and Attiyat Allah shot wide from inside the area.

Morocco almost extended their lead in the opening attack of the second half and it was no surprise that Ronaldo was brought on to perform a rescue mission. With Saiss finally succumbing to his hamstring and being stretchered off after 56 minutes, nerves increased, more so when Goncalo Ramos, scorer of a hat-trick in the previous game, headed over perhaps Portugal’s best chance moments later. Soon, Fernandes shot just over from the edge of the area.

Battling injuries and fatigue, it was no surprise that Morocco defended deeper and deeper — they have done it so well, after all.

There were free-kicks from dangerous positions and a succession of corners, but the red wall held firm and there was always the threat of the now legendary lightning fast counter-attacks.

The closer dreamland appeared, the louder the stadium became and the greater were the nerves. Fans helped out with their version of Iceland’s thunderclap, but there was no concealing just how monumental the last 10 minutes were going to be. 

Even when Portugal did breach that backline, there was Bounou to save the day, just as he did with eight minutes remaining, somehow getting a hand to a fierce Joao Felix drive that was heading for the top corner. The goalkeeper has been just one of a number of heroes from the country who have lit up this World Cup. 

If they had not fought hard enough, there were eight minutes of injury time, which started with Ronaldo’s low shot well-saved by Bounou. Then, within the next two minutes, substitute Walid Cheddira was shown two yellow cards and sent off, reducing his under-pressure team to 10 men.

Morocco responded by defending even harder and should have sealed the win in the 96th minute when Yahya Jabrane went clean through on goal, but could only meekly lift the ball into the arms of the goalkeeper. There was still time for Pepe’s header to go wide.

Then the final whistle sounded. It was all over, but it felt like a new beginning for football, with an Arab team in the last four and looking like they do not know how to lose and can beat anyone.

Morocco were celebrating, not for the first time, and it may not be the last.

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *