Wow. It was 7.57pm in Qatar, just before 6pm in Casablanca, when Facundo Tello blew the final whistle, delivering a delirious signal for the men on the sideline to finally let loose and stream on to the pitch, and for those who were already there to collapse on to the floor. They had done it, these Atlas Lions. Legends now, the roar tore right through everyone here and way, way beyond. History is made and it is made of this. Morocco are the first African team to make it to a World Cup semi-final.
Walid Regragui’s team have faced Belgium, Croatia, Spain and now Portugal, but they are made of granite. None could tumble them, the task before France now. In eight and a half hours of football – plus three penalties in a shootout – no opposition player has scored against them: the only time they conceded they scored it themselves, a freak own goal against Canada. Here, Portugal fielded the forward who scored a hat-trick against Switzerland and then asked Cristiano Ronaldo to rescue them from the bench, to no avail. Ronaldo disappeared down the tunnel in tears. This may be his last match.
It will not be Morocco’s. Ronaldo got one chance in the 91st minute, his moment seemingly arriving right on time, but Bono saved, as he has so often. Pepe got an even clearer one but his close-range header somehow flashed past a post in the 97th minute, a kind of scream accompanying the ball as it went, and Morocco wrote another page of this story – even without the substitute Walid Cheddira, who was sent off in the final minutes.
Resisting is something Morocco do so well but do not think it is all they do: this is a team worthy of their place in the semi-final and in history, as well as the wild scenes that accompanied the end here. Ultimately one goal was enough, yet the simplicity of that statement should not suggest that Youssef En-Nesyri’s header in the 42nd minute was all there was. The myth of Morocco’s defensiveness should be laid to rest.
Yes, they start from deep, dashing through, but they do not just wait to run – they work for the chance to do so. They have a clarity and an incision few teams have, picking their way past tiny gaps, exchanging passes and streaming into the daylight, the midfield not a place to stop but to sprint right through. The last time they did just that, with the clock running down, the right-back Achraf Hakimi went sprinting into Portugal’s six-yard box. What an exceptional player he is, and he is not alone. Fiorentina’s Sofyan Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi, who is fighting relegation with Angers in France, have constantly outplayed supposedly more illustrious footballers. In Sofiane Boufal and Hakim Ziyech they have lovely feet, two superb escapologists.
So while a João Félix diving header was saved by Bono after just four minutes and he had a deflected attempt that momentarily looked like it had gone in, it was Morocco who had the better chances. En-Nesyri headed high after a run from Boufal, and Ounahi set up Ziyech for a shot before En-Nesyri saw a second effort go over. Yahia Attiyat Allah then pulled back perfectly for Selim Amallah to scuff high and wide.
Then it happened. The cross from the left, delivered by Attiyat Allah, was long and looping, but En-Nesyri jumped like Jordan. Diogo Costa, diving lower and to the left, misjudged the flight. Still in the air when he realised the ball would not reach him, he fell with a look on his face that said: where has it gone? The answer was into the net, En-Nesyri’s header bouncing back up off the turf.
Although Bruno Fernandes smashed a bouncing ball off the bar and then appealed for a penalty – he had gone to ground too easily upon feeling Hakimi’s hand on his shoulder – Morocco continued to create more. Ounahi rolled it into Attiyat Allah, the ball begging to be finished but instead the left-back horribly sliced his shot. A free-kick then somehow failed to slip in at the far post with three men in attendance. And another sharp dash saw the pitch open again only for Ounahi to sky his shot.
By then Ronaldo was on, the stage seemingly set. Instead, the first opportunity came to Gonçalo Ramos who headed wide from a position the No 7 would have loved before Bruno Fernandes’s effort flew just over.
This was Ronaldo’s 196th international, equalling the Fifa record; preventing him adding to his 118 goals was made harder by the forced departure of a third member of that back four, Romain Saïss withdrawn. It was time to resist, which did not stop another superb five-man stampede, the break finally dying at the feet of Cheddira. It did not stop them doing it again even later, in fact.
Faced by a red wall Portugal struggled, Ronaldo teeing up Félix seven minutes from time. Bono flew to tip that over and a moment later saved Ronaldo’s low shot, perhaps the forward’s last act with Portugal. Remarkably, Morocco had one more chance before Pepe’s header, Zakaria Aboukhlal sent clean through only to dink a shot straight at Costa.
That felt like the kind of moment that fate punishes you for, cruelty inevitably coming, but Morocco are made of something else. They held on with just 10 men – and an entire continent.