DOHA, Qatar — The first World Cup in the Arab world began with a shock, Saudi Arabia upsetting Argentina in a first-round game, setting off waves of jubilation in a region lacking in soccer giants.
The tournament in Qatar is reaching its final stages with another stunner: Morocco upset Portugal on Saturday to become the first country in Africa and the Arab world to ever reach the semifinals.
Morocco added Portugal — and its superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo — to the list of major European nations it has unexpectedly dumped out of the Cup. Having never previously been in contention for soccer’s biggest prize, Morocco is just one game from a place in the final, after dispatching the likes of Belgium, Spain and now Portugal without allowing them a single goal.
“Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming,” Yassine Bounou, the Morocco goalkeeper known as Bono, said after the game. “These moments are great, but we’re here to change the mentality. With this feeling of inferiority, we have to get rid of it. The Moroccan player can face any in the world. The generation coming after us will know we can create miracles.”
Players from Africa and the Arab world have long played in soccer’s upper-tier leagues in Europe and elsewhere, and like many athletes who hold citizenship in more than one place, many are playing on teams other than the one where they were born. But national teams in Africa have struggled to make a mark late in the tournament until now.
Of Morocco’s 26-member team, just 12 were born in Morocco, the lowest ratio in the competition, according to a tally by FIFA. The others are of Moroccan heritage but born in Spain, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Other teams in Africa have also lured players with familial if not residential ties to their teams.
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Still, Morocco’s storybook run has millions of Arabs, Muslims and North Africans coalescing behind a single team in a way that this tournament has not seen.
That fanatical support was in full display inside the Al Thumama Stadium, which for 90 minutes (plus eight minutes of heart-stopping injury time) resembled a corner of Casablanca, Rabat or Marrakesh. Every period of Portuguese possession was met with ear-piercing whistles, and every Moroccan incursion the other way greeted with the type of boisterous cheering that threatened to pull the ball into the Portuguese net.
While Morocco celebrates its victory and ponders the next step of its magical journey — it will face either England or France in a semifinal game Wednesday — the result almost certainly means the end of an era.
Ronaldo arrived in Qatar as one of the most famous people in the world, one of the best players to play soccer in any era. But he also arrived as an awkward tourist, having burned his bridges and been dumped by his club, Manchester United. He found his place in Portugal’s starting lineup, a position that he had gripped for nearly two decades, under scrutiny and then ripped away by the time Portugal reached the round of 16.
Against Switzerland, Ronaldo watched as his young replacement, Gonçalo Ramos, announced himself with a stunning hat trick, producing the credentials that immediately installed the Benfica forward as an heir apparent.
But against Morocco, with an iron-willed defense that has still only been breached once in this World Cup, Ramos and the Portuguese wilted as the wall of whistles reached fever pitch and stayed there. Ronaldo entered the stage with 40 minutes left, a platform to produce one more heroic act, a final cinematic moment in a career filled with cinematic moments.
At the point of an attack that featured a line of four forwards in ever more desperate attempts to break Moroccan resistance, Ronaldo could not bend the World Cup to his will. He ran, he chased balls in behind, he leaped to get his head to balls, he tried to find shooting angles, everything and anything to break the redshirted Moroccan barrier.
So did his teammates. But nothing worked. Shots were blocked, tackles were made as Moroccan numbers seemingly multiplied in the face of incessant waves of Portuguese attacks.
Portugal simply could not get the ball to break for it in the way Morocco had in that one first-half moment where the air in the stadium stilled, where the ball hung in the air for what seemed like an age, before being met by En-Nesyri.
The tall striker timed his run to perfection, meeting the hopeful cross from Yahia Attiyat Allah just a fraction of a second before goalkeeper Diogo Costa could get his hand on it.
It was in the aftermath of that goal when Morocco let its guard down for the only time in the game, allowing the ball to ricochet dangerously close to its goal. Portugal almost went level in that moment, with midfielder Bruno Fernandes hitting a strike from an improbable angle that came crashing off the bar.
That was as close as Morocco would let Portugal get. It regrouped and formed the impenetrable barrier that had pushed it further and further in the competition.
There would be near misses; it was Portugal after all. There were last gasp challenges, stretched limbs that just deflected balls away. And then when those were not enough, there was Bono — the Moroccan goalkeeper with the rock star’s name that refused to be beaten.
By the final minutes of the game, Morocco was reduced to 10 men with the substitute Walid Cheddira collecting two yellow cards in quick succession. But Morocco refused to be distracted. The final seconds were a blur played against the sound of whistling that threatened to make ears bleed. And then, came the whistle that mattered.
While his teammates sank to their knees, Ronaldo brushed aside the good wishes of two Moroccan players and headed straight toward the tunnel, wiping away tears with his jersey. Morocco, swept up by the bedlam, summoned one final reserve of energy to embark on celebrations that will live long in memory. The team charged toward its fans massed behind the goal that refused to be breached, lifting their arms into the air, milking a moment that only the most optimistic member of its squad could have deemed possible when the journey began last month.
While one hero departs soccer’s biggest stage, the World Cup has given birth to a team of heroes for the Arab world. Morocco is not ready to say goodbye.
Aida Alami contributed reporting from Rabat, Morocco.