Morroco have boldly gone where no Arab country have gone before. The quarterfinal is a new frontier: two steps away from the World Cup. That’s a cause for a celebration. A reason for rejoicing in the Arab world. A matter of pride for Arabs worldwide.
The Round of 16 victory over Spain was beyond belief. But if you were watching the Morrocans in the group games in Qatar, the win on Monday (December 6) wouldn’t have come as a surprise. In a World Cup full of surprises, where Argentina, Germany, France, Brazil and Spain were upstaged, Morroco added to the Doha shocks with the defeat of Belgium and Canada, besides the draw with Croatia.
There was a pattern to it. The massive crowd support was a significant factor. All Arab teams in Qatar enjoyed enormous backing from the spectators, but Morocco had more. A sea of Morrocans waving red flags and beating drums whipped up such a frenzy that the players found more reservoirs of energy to keep going. The fans were not averse to jeering opponents as Spain found out: every touch by a Spaniard was met with high-pitched whistling that rang out at the Education City Stadium incessantly. Intimidating, really.
None of that detracts from the footballing merit of the Moroccans. They sat back and defended stoutly, sometimes with all their 11 men. Captain Romain Saiss stood tall, rallying his defence to ward off the Spanish armada, while Hakim Ziyech, Sofyan Amrabat and Sofiane Boufal launched counter-attacks through the flanks.
How Morocco made history
Even a thousand passes strung together by Luis Enrique’s young team failed to dislodge the Moroccan defence. They held together stodgily for 120 adrenaline-addled minutes before goalkeeper Yassine Bounou stopped two Spanish penalties to haul them into the last 16. Pandemonium in the field, ecstasy on the stands, and whoops of delight and dancing filled the streets of Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangiers and other Morrocan cities. The joy spread to other Arab countries.
The first Arab and North African nation to reach the World Cup quarterfinals is a feat to be feted. Morroco are the fourth African team to do it and the first since Ghana in 2010. They are the only African nation left in Qatar, following the exits of Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal and Tunisia. That gives an idea of the enormity of the achievement. Historic indeed.
Morocco’s win over Spain is special, given their turbulent geopolitical relationship dating back to 1492. They have a shared history and geographical proximity: only the strait of Gibraltar separates the countries, 8km at the closest point.
Spaniards would have cringed when Madrid-born Achraf Hakimi slotted the decisive penalty kick that fetched Morocco victory. It was a kick that will forever change the Paris Saint-Germain player’s life.
There’s more Spanish connection. Morrocan goalkeeper Bounou, also known as Bono, and the forward Youssef En-Nesyri play for Sevilla in La Liga. Abdessamad Ezzalzouli, who was raised in Spain from age 7, turns out for Osasuna. So a win over Spain is doubly sweet for Morroco.
Where do they go from here? Can they beat Portugal in the semifinal? The Portuguese, without Cristiano Ronaldo, looked ominous in the win over Switzerland. But reputation and form haven’t stopped Morocco in this World Cup.
Bring on, Portugal.