Youssef En-Nesyri
A HERO: Youssef En-Nesyri (centre) celebrates after scoring Morocco’s winning goal against Portugal in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 quarterfinal football match at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha on December 10, 2022. Morocco became the first African nation to enter the last four. Image Credit: AP

“An African nation will win the World Cup before the year 2000,” Pele predicted in 1977. When that didn’t happen, the world’s greatest footballer extended his prediction to 2010. Well, that too didn’t become a reality. Twelve years later, Morocco have raised visions of bringing the Brazilian’s words to fruition by storming into the semifinals of the Qatar World Cup.

No African nation have reached the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup. The previous best was a quarterfinal finish. Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) have been there, but not beyond. That makes Morocco’s feat truly historic. It’s a feat that united the world.

Football unites people. It brings immense joy to billions, which is why it’s called O Jogo Bonito (The Beautiful Game, in Portuguese language). Morroco is an Arab country. A North African country that brought cheer to Arabs and Asians. It’s a Muslim-majority country, which is why the Islamic world is applauding. In short, the Atlas Lions have united Africa, Asia and the Islamic world. That’s the beauty of football. Perhaps the only sport that brings together so many people.

Morocco’s march into the last four has been a fairytale. Who would have thought a nation ranked No. 22 in the world would upstage their famed rivals? Nobody gave them a chance to progress from Group F, where Belgium (World No. 2 team) and Croatia (Rank 16) were the heavyweights. Wins against Belgium and Canada fetched them a spot in the quarterfinals, where they stunned Spain on penalties. More convincing was their ouster of Portugal, ranked ninth.

Morocco Ronaldo
AGONY AND ECSTASY: Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo looks dejected as Morocco players celebrate their win in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 quarterfinal football match at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha on December 10, 2022. Portugal were eliminated from as Morocco progressed to the semi finals Image Credit: Reuters

Youssef En-Nesyri: Birth of a hero

Youssef En-Nesyri struck the winner and became a Morrocan hero. An Arab hero. An African hero. He climbed high into the Doha night sky to nod home the goal that sunk Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s talisman and one of the football greats, broke down and slinked to the dressing room without congratulating the Morrocan players. The loss did hurt. It was beyond belief.

Belief is what spurred the Moroccans. They believed in themselves. And why not? They have forged their skills in the fire of European competitions. Hakim Ziyech turns out for Chelsea, and Nayef Aguerd dons the West Ham colours in the English Premier League. In Spain’s La Liga, Yassine Bounou guards the Sevilla goal while En-Nesyri hunts goals. Noussair Mazraoui mans the Bayern Munich defence in the German Bundesliga, and Achraf Hakimi does the same for Paris Saint-Germain in the French Ligue 1. Sofyan Amrabat plies his trade for Fiorentina in Italy’s Serie A.

The power of dreams

They brought the experience of top-flight football to Qatar, and the Moroccans dared to dream of a World Cup win. In Walid Regragui, they found a coach who put wings to their dream. The Morrocan people tapped into the dream. Arabs and Africans too. The world too. That’s the power of dreams.

The Qatar World Cup song Dreamers could well have been the anthem of the Atlas Lions. Here’s how it goes:

Look who we are, we are the dreamers

We make it happen, ’cause we believe it

Look who we are, we are the dreamers

We make it happen, ’cause we can see it

Morocco fans
PURE JOY: Morocco fans at Doha’s Souq Waqif celebrate after their country’s win gainst Portugal in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 quarterfinal football match at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha on December 10, 2022. The win set of a wave of celebrations among Arabs and Africans. Image Credit: AFP

This is the time for Africa

Fittingly, the song features an Arab and an Asian: Fahad Al Kubaisi of Qatar and BTS’s Jung Kook of South Korea (Incidentally, South Korea figured in the 2002 World Cup semifinals, the best showing by an Asian country). Morocco must be inspired every time Dreamers rings out in the Qatari stadiums. And the World Cup is indeed the stuff of dreams. Morocco are dreaming. Africa too. Their time has come.

Colombian singer Shakira said it best in the lyrics of Waka, Waka — the official song of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

This time for Africa …

Your time to shine, don’t wait in line …

People are raising their expectations …

Go on and feed them, this is your moment, no hesitations …

Today’s your day, I feel it …

This time for Africa

Pele’s words ring true now. This is the time for Africa.