History was made at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha this evening when Morocco became Africa’s first World Cup semi-finalist.
The Atlas Lions, carrying hopes of an entire continent, inflicted a 1-0 defeat on their more illustrious opponents Portugal with Sevilla forward Youssef En-Nesyri out-leaping goalkeeper Diogo Costa and Ruben Dias three minutes before half-time to head into an empty net. This breakthrough moment established En-Nesyri as Morocco’s record World Cup scorer with three goals. In fact, En-Nesyri netted from just three shots on target.
As they’ve done all tournament, Walid Regragui’s men were dogged in their set-up, opting to sit back and play on the counter, with Portugal struggling to break them down even though Fernando Santos’ team dominated possession (73.3%). Their defensive work has been nothing but exemplary. Across five World Cup games Morocco has only conceded once, and that was a Naif Aguerd own-goal against Canada in a game where they ran out 2-1 winners. They’ve silenced the attacks of Belgium, Spain and Portugal with England or France awaiting them in the next round. Yassine Bounou (Bono), who made his 50th appearance for Morocco tonight, also became the first African goalkeeper to record three clean sheets in a single edition of the World Cup.
“They were fabulous. It was a mirror of the Spanish game,” Graeme Souness said on ITV. “They were sensational when it came to defending their box. In terms of the hard work, being organised and determination they were a credit to their country. Do not take them lightly. They will not be a different Morocco next time. They will play the exact same way.”
Cristiano Ronaldo, again, started on the bench. However on this occasion — in which he earned a 196th international cap to equal a Fifa record — the 37-year-old came on much earlier in the second half. Even so, he couldn’t inspire like he’s done so many times before. More damning, he’s now failed to score in all eight of his knockout stage appearances at the World Cup (including third place play-off), going 570 minutes without scoring and taking 27 shots in the process.
Aside from a late headed chance by Pepe, Portugal’s closest moment came in the 83rd minute when Ronaldo teed up Joao Felix on the edge of the box. His thunderous left-footed curling effort was brilliantly tipped over the bar by the sensational Bono, who is in the running with Dominik Livaković for the best goalkeeper at these finals.
There was a late twist when substitute Walid Cheddira picked up two yellow cards in the space of a few seconds. Even with this brief man advantage, the former European champions were unable to make it count. In defeat, this all but ends Ronaldo’s personal quest to lift football’s grandest prize, while condemning Portugal to another disappointing tournament exit. It should also seal Santos’ fate as their head coach.
As for Morocco, they’ll be dancing on the streets of many cities across Africa and Europe where the Moroccan diasporas live. But Regragui — who has envisaged an African world champion in the next 30 years — will not be getting carried away. Morocco is effectively two wins away from making the impossible possible.