Morocco extended their dream run at the World Cup as they out-thought and out-fought Portugal in a stunning 1-0 win to become the first-ever African country to reach the semi-finals thanks to a towering headed goal from Youssef En-Nesyri.
En-Nesyri leapt high in the air to head home the game’s only goal just before half-time at the Al-Thumama Stadium to strike a significant blow against football’s established order and book a semi-final on Wednesday.
Morocco had already beaten Belgium and Spain in this tournament but the win over Portugal yesterday was nothing short of remarkable. It was also one of their better performances in Qatar so far, full of determined defending and keeping at bay a collection of world stars despite losing key defender, Nayef Aguerd to injury before the match and his back four partner and captain, Romain Saiss early in the second half.
Portugal, who was a clear favourite, will rue this loss more especially as it is a disappointing curtain call for the 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, who was hoping to add a win here to end an illustrious international career.
A fourth-minute free kick for Portugal from wide on the right was swung into the penalty area, and met by Joao Felix’s diving header, producing a fine save from Yassine Bounou, but the supply quickly dried up thereafter as Morocco closed the passing lanes and frustrated the Portuguese attackers.
Left back, Yahya Attiat-Allah made several surging runs down the flank, presenting Selim Amallah with a good chance in the 35th minute, which he was unable to convert. But seven minutes later, a high ball from the fullback into the Portuguese box was met by a towering header from En-Nesyri, out jumping both goalkeeper, Diogo Costa and defender, Ruben Dias to hand Morocco the lead.
Morocco came close to a second goal four minutes into the second half as Jawad El Yamiq got a touch to Hakim Ziyech’s in-swinging free kick but Costa blocked it.
Ronaldo’s entry in the 51st minute couldn’t save Portugal either. Morocco’s Walid Cheddira was sent off in extra time after receiving two yellow cards in quick succession, meaning he will miss the semifinals on Wednesday. Morocco heads to their next match having just conceded one goal in their five games and even that was an own goal against Canada.
Unfortunately, Morocco’s big moment didn’t sit particularly well with one of Portugal’s stars. In his post-game interview, Portuguese defender Pepe, blamed the referee for his team’s loss. Pepe also had a chance to prevent this loss, but missed a header from in close late in the game.
Pepe, like Ronaldo didn’t handle this loss particularly well. Immediately after the final whistle, Ronaldo headed for the tunnel instead of shaking the hands of Morocco’s players and congratulating them for their historic win.
It is a seminal moment to savour in World Cup history, with an African nation finally advancing to the levels typically only reached by European or South American teams. Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) all reached the quarterfinals but got no further.
In 1977, the great Brazilian, Pele, said an African team would win the World Cup by the year 2000. Sadly, it is a prediction that is 22 years out of date and counting.
However, the encouraging reality is that Africa is finally getting closer as Morocco is looking to make this come true, hitting the semi-finals for the first time ever.
This win is further good news for the continent as a tenth African team will enter a World Cup qualifying playoff tournament that consists of six countries, following the conclusion of the playoffs, the two successful nations will then advance to the World Cup in the United States.
In essence, this all means that there is the potential for Africa to be represented by as many as 10 teams at the next World Cup, which would be double the usual amount.
This is a crucial development and as briefly touched on, the timing couldn’t be any better as the participating teams from Africa will have the wind in their sails owing to Morocco’s extraordinary accomplishment, yesterday.
As far as matters closer to home go, this will certainly benefit Nigeria after the Super Eagles failed to qualify for the 2022 showpiece in Qatar following a heartbreaking playoff loss to Ghana. Needless to say, with more qualifying slots available and a promising Nigerian team beginning to gel, the World Cup in America could be the best in the country’s history.
If it isn’t Nigeria that ends up going all the way in the US, then it may well be another African team that capitalises on the momentum the continent has been gifted courtesy of the history-making Moroccans.