How Morocco defeated Portugal – The New York Times

DOHA, Qatar – The first World Cup in the Arab world began with a shock when Saudi Arabia upset Argentina in a first-round match, sparking waves of cheering in a region that lacks football giants.

The tournament in Qatar comes to an end with another smash: Morocco defeated Portugal on Saturday and became the first country in Africa and the Arab world to reach the semi-finals.

Morocco added Portugal – and its superstar Cristiano Ronaldo – to the list of great European nations it unexpectedly knocked out of the cup. Morocco, who have never before contested football’s greatest prize, are just a game away from a place in the final after knocking out the likes of Belgium, Spain and now Portugal without allowing them a single goal.

“Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming,” Yassine Bounou, the Moroccan goalkeeper known as Bono, said after the game. “These moments are great, but we are here to change the mentality. With this feeling of inferiority, we have to get rid of it. The Moroccan player can compete against anyone in the world. The generation after us will know that we can work miracles.”

Players from Africa and the Arab world have long played in the top leagues of football in Europe and elsewhere, and like many athletes who hold citizenship in more than one place, many play on teams other than the one into which they were born. But national teams in Africa have struggled to make their mark late in the tournament.

From Morocco’s 26-strong team, just 12 were born in Morocco, the lowest rate in the competition, according to FIFA tally. The others are of Moroccan descent but were born in Spain, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Other teams in Africa have also attracted players to their teams with family, if not residential, ties.

Nonetheless, Morocco’s picture-perfect run has united millions of Arabs, Muslims and North Africans behind a single team in a way the tournament has never seen before.

That fanatical support was on full display at the Al Thumama Stadium, which for 90 minutes (plus eight minutes of stunning added time) resembled a corner from Casablanca, Rabat or Marrakesh. Each streak of Portuguese possession was greeted with deafening whistles, and every Moroccan thrust in the other direction was greeted with the kind of boisterous celebration that threatened to drag the ball into the Portuguese net.

As Morocco celebrate their victory and reflect on the next step in their magical journey – they will face either England or France in a semi-final match on Wednesday – the result almost certainly means the end of an era.

Ronaldo came to Qatar as one of the most famous people in the world, one of the greatest football players of all time. But he also arrived as an awkward tourist, having burned his bridges and abandoned by his club, Manchester United. He found his place in Portugal’s starting line-up, a position he had held for almost two decades, was scrutinized and then snatched away when Portugal reached the round of 16.

Against Switzerland, Ronaldo watched as his young successor, Gonçalo Ramos, announced himself with a stunning hat-trick, providing the credentials that immediately established the Benfica striker as heir to the throne.

But against Morocco, with an ironclad defense only breached once at this World Cup so far, Ramos and the Portuguese dwindled as the wall of whistle peaked and stayed there. Ronaldo took the stage with 40 minutes to go, a platform to pull off another heroic feat, a final cinematic moment in a career packed with cinematic moments.

At the point of an attack that saw a line of four forwards increasingly desperate to break down Moroccan resistance, Ronaldo could not bend the World Cup to his will. He ran, he chased balls, he jumped to get his head off balls, he tried to find shot angles, anything and everything to break through the red-shirted Moroccan barrier.

So did his teammates. But nothing worked. Shots were blocked, tackles made as Moroccan numbers seemingly multiplied in the face of incessant waves of Portuguese attacks.

Portugal just didn’t manage to break the ball like Morocco had in that one moment of the first half when the air in the stadium stopped as the ball hung in the air for what felt like an eternity before it was struck by En -Nesyri.

The tall striker stopped his run perfectly, catching Yahia Attiyat Allah’s hopeful cross just a split second before goalkeeper Diogo Costa could get his hands on it.

It was shortly after that goal that Morocco stopped rebounding dangerously close to goal for the only time in the game. Portugal almost equalized at that moment when midfielder Bruno Fernandes struck a shot from an unlikely angle that went off the bar.

That was as close as Morocco would let Portugal come. It regrouped, forming the impenetrable barrier that had pushed it ever further in competition.

There would be near misses; it was Portugal after all. There were last breaths, stretched limbs that simply deflected balls. And if that wasn’t enough, there was Bono – the Moroccan goalkeeper with the rock star’s name who couldn’t be beat.

In the closing minutes of the game, Morocco were reduced to 10 men and substitute Walid Cheddira conceded two yellow cards in quick succession. But Morocco was undeterred. The final seconds were a blurry match against the whistling that threatened to make ears bleed. And then came the whistle that mattered.

As his team-mates fell to their knees, Ronaldo brushed aside well wishes from two Moroccan players and headed straight for the tunnel, wiping tears on his shirt. Morocco, gripped by chaos, gathered one last reserve of energy to begin celebrations that will long be remembered. The team charged at their fans, who had gathered behind the gate that couldn’t be breached, raised their arms in the air and milked a moment only the most optimistic member of their team could have imagined as the trip last month started.

As a hero leaves football’s grandest stage, the World Cup has produced a team of heroes for the Arab world. Morocco is not ready to say goodbye.

Aida Alam contributed reporting from Rabat, Morocco. How Morocco defeated Portugal – The New York Times

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