Only football does this. In the end, it had to be him. After two tense, enthralling, exhausting hours and seven agonising minutes lived on the edge, the moment came, Achraf Hakimi standing on the spot, the world watching. Raised in Madrid, one of 17 footballers born beyond Morocco’s frontiers who help make up this marvellous team, forged from home and the diaspora, his was the seventh penalty in the shootout. It was also an opportunity to send the Atlas Lions into the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time – and eliminate the country where he grew up.
Pressure, what pressure? Hakimi barely broke into a run, virtually walking up, and dinked gently into the net. The scene was serene, the flight of the ball too but not for long, bedlam taking over. He shuffled a little dance and smiled. In front of him, fans exploded. Behind him, teammates sprinted his way. Together they made for Yassine Bounou, goalkeeper and hero who waited, arms wide. Then they fell to their knees and prayed.
A measure of how big this was came from the media. One journalist took the microphone. “I don’t have a question,” he told Bounou and the coach Walid Regragui, who has been in the job for little more than three months, “I just wanted to say thanks.” Voice breaking, in tears now, he launched into a long, emotional speech, that ended with applause.
History had been made, all right, and how they had fought for it, delivering the first upset in the knockouts – if that is what this was. Spain are out; Africa’s last remaining team are through and they are some side. Six and half hours have passed at this World Cup, and not one opponent has beaten Bounou – who has “Bono” on his shirt. Morocco have conceded a single goal, and they scored that themselves. Even when it went to penalties, there was no way past.
“I wouldn’t change anything; just their goalkeeper,” Luis Enrique insisted afterwards. Bono saved two – from Sergio Busquets and Carlos Soler – and watched the first come back off a post. It had been taken by Pablo Sarabia, who was now in tears.
How could he not be? Sarabia had not played in this tournament before he was introduced with two minutes left, precisely to take the penalty. His was the first, supposed to set Spain on their way. Instead, he struck the post for the second time in two touches. On with a post‑match mission he had unexpectedly been handed a moment before the final whistle: suddenly appearing a yard from goal, he sent the ball flying off the far post on 122.50, 10 seconds from time. Which might have helped to explain why it now happened again, the weight of responsibility too much. Crikey, this was cruel.
Not that Morocco cared, and they will feel they deserved it. This place, which was very much their place, erupted. A fascinating game was also a special occasion. Morocco dominated this stadium, decked in red and green, Education City their home for the evening. That had been evident from the start, the selección whistled every time they got the ball. The supporters needed some serious lungs: Spain would end up with 76% of possession and more than thousand passes.
Morocco needed them, too; this was a truly monumental effort, their intent underlined when it took 18 seconds for the first foul, Hakim Ziyech taking down Jordi Alba. “Every time you see Spain’s shirt, you know what you’re going to get,” Regragui had said, and soon this settled into a pattern. Except that settled wasn’t the word. Sure, Spain carried the weight of the game if a little bluntly, but there was an edge, a rhythm, and if there were ultimately no goals that didn’t diminish it. Defending like this is an art and there were chances too, flashes that might have changed everything and fired a warning: Morocco are not finished yet.
When they robbed, they ran, direct and fast, yet to say that is to oversimplify. This team impress in tight spaces, working their way out of corners before setting off. Hakimi was immense. Sofyan Amrabat was everywhere. And afterwards Luis Enrique asked after Azzedine Ounahi. “Madre mia,” he said, “where did he come from?” The answer at Education City was: everywhere.
The best moments meanwhile came from Sofiane Boufal, all soft feet and slick movement, a gorgeous shuffle that bamboozled Marcos Llorente the most eye-catching. Spain had their moments too, of course, if fewer than they sought. Gavi hit the bar and Ferran Torres was somehow blocked in the first half. The next minute Marco Asensio struck into the side netting. A superb shift of weight then saw Boufal cross for Nayef Aguerd to head over at the other end.
The two sides became increasingly entrenched in their identities as the second half progressed. Spain could not quite find clarity; Morocco had it but, tiring now, not always the precision to complete transitions at pace. Youssef En-Nesyri went too early on the most promising break and as time slipped away so the stress increased. It was relentless, Morocco surely feeling this in their legs, their excursions fewer now, although there were opportunities. Especially for Walid Cheddira, who twice lacked the speed or tranquility to take them. Unai Simón saved one deep in extra time.
Still it was in the balance, still Spain pushed, and Sarabia struck the post. The next time he touched the ball, in the shootout, it happened again. Abdelhamid Sabiri scored, Ziyech did too, and then came the coolest man in the whole of Qatar.
• This article was amended on 7 December 2022. Achraf Hakimi scored the seventh penalty of the shootout, not the sixth as an earlier version said.