Moroccan Marvel Sees Africa Rejoice As Ronaldo & Portugal’s World Cup Dream Ends

Moroccan Marvel Sees Africa Rejoice As Ronaldo & Portugal’s World Cup Dream Ends

“Drink it in Casablanca, relish it Rabat, this is your night.
See it from atop the Atlas Mountains,
All above the Marrakesh express,
A night
will never forget.”

Peter Drury

Twelve years ago, when the World Cup was hosted for the first time in the African continent, Peter Drury was present in commentary when Tshabalala scored the first goal of the tournament for host nation South Africa. It was a significant moment in African history, as Drury poetically yelped, “Goal Bafana Bafana, goal for South Africa, goal for all of Africa.”

It was only fitting that the man with the magic words would once again be present to call another momentous occasion for an African side, but this time with even more meaning and emotions at stake.

Something miraculous transpired at the Al Thumama stadium on Saturday night. With a bipartisan crowd donning the fiery Moroccan red, an entire continent, representing 20% of the Earth’s land mass, leapt with unbound ecstasy as history beckoned. The country of Morocco, carrying the burden of expectations of not just Africa, but also that of the Arab peninsula, became the first ever nation from the region to reach the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup.

With an awe inspiring win against a star studded Portugal team in the quarterfinals, they are now just a couple of steps away from footballing immorality. “It’s crazy. We’re living a dream and we don’t want to wake up. I have goosebumps”, said Sofiane Boufal after the game.

Portugal, who were going into this game on the back of a thumping 6-1 win against Switzerland in the round of 16, unsurprisingly shared the lion-share of possession in this game as well. Against the might of Seleção das Quinas, Morocco must’ve felt fatigued after the wear and tear of their 120 minutes against Spain.

But when En Nesyri leapt up beyond an onrushing Costa to head the ball into the back of the net, a jump very much akin to that of opposite number Ronaldo at his pomp, there seemed an inevitability to what was brewing in the air in Doha.

The Atlas Lions, despite having a team that has just 12 players out of the 26 in their squad born in Morocco, have a unified spirit that cannot be explained by the lines drawn on a map. This side, led by Walid Regragui, who only took charge of Morocco in late September, has unified his group of players based on a greater purpose.

“I told the guys before the match we had to write history for Africa. I’m very, very happy”, said the Moroccan boss after the win. This is their purpose. A chance to show the world that football transcends boundaries; a chance to prove that the region of Africa and West Asia can be a global powerhouse in the footballing landscape; a chance to validate the struggles and dreams of 26 players looking to etch their names in legend.

Morocco defended like lions, contesting every ball, every challenge, and covering every blade of grass on the pitch without leaving any stone unturned. Aided by a resolute backline, goalkeeper Bounou – who was the penalty shootout hero against Spain, once again stepped up for his team to help Morocco keep a staggering 9th clean sheet in 11 games.

The midfield, led by the impressive Amrabat who has had a stellar renaissance and earned plaudits from fans and pundits, was once again the heartbeat of the Moroccan resistance. With goalscorer En Nesyri sandwiched in between the talented Ziyech and mercurial Boufal, it is a team that has not just quality, but also tremendous grit and spirit.

They managed to hold on to their slender 1-0 lead. And when full time whistle blew, all 11 Moroccan players fell to the floor and looked to the heavens, drinking it all in. To beat Belgium in the group stages is one thing, but to be underdogs and beat world-beaters in Spain and Portugal in the knockout stages of a world event is a resounding feat beyond belief. It’s one of those moments that begs the question – where were you when that happened?

On the other side of the coin, Santos’ men looked broken. This is a team that has an abundance of riches in terms of squad depth, with even players like Rafael Leao and  Joao Cancelo not having a guaranteed spot in the starting 11. But yet, despite all the quality on and off the pitch, they find themselves not having reached the semis of the tournament since the 2006 edition.

On a personal front, Cristiano Ronaldo has not had a good 6 months. Having been dropped to the bench after falling out with his manager at club level, he was dropped to the bench by Santos as well. He came on as a substitute just minutes into the second half against Morocco, but could not have the impact that he would’ve hoped for. It is clear that the 38-year-old is on his last legs.

But despite his recent decline, one can’t help but think that this was his best chance to go the distance. In what is in all likeliness Ronaldo’s last World Cup, it is quite a tame end to a legendary international career, as he walked off the pitch in tears.

While it is time to reflect and introspect for the Portuguese, the Moroccans will be celebrating down South in the streets of Marrakesh and all over the North African country, awaiting Wednesday night’s semi-final challenge against tournament favourites France, hoping to reach the promised land by causing another upset.

Whatever the result of that clash may be, Morocco have already captured the imagination of the world. This is a tournament that will live on in the hearts and minds of not just the 400 million Moroccans, but also those who they represent beyond just their country.

As the Atlas Lions gear up for another challenge, the world watches on in intrigue, maybe even secretly willing them on. Two European representatives, one South American, and one African – the semi-finals couldn’t come sooner.

Also read: Argentina v Netherlands – Tactics & Match Report: FIFA WC 2022

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