A few minutes after Yassine Bounou’s penalty shootout heroics, Morocco’s players knelt in unison to pray before a baying bank of supporters drumming furiously to the sweet sound of victory against Spain. It was a powerful sight that will touch more than the tens of thousands of Moroccans here.
After more than 130 minutes of gripping drama and relentless noise, Morocco are the lone Arab nation and last African team standing. The Argentinian referee, Fernando Rapallini, needed a megaphone to make himself heard.
Bounou, the Morocco goalkeeper who saved from Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets and is one of four Morocco players based in Spain, was still getting his breath back after being tossed into the air by his teammates. Bounou – who has “Bono” on his shirt – and the forward Youssef En-Nesyri play in La Liga for Sevilla and the substitute Abdessamad Ezzalzouli, who was raised in Spain from the age of seven, for Osasuna.
Then it was the turn of the manager, Walid Regragui, to be hoisted aloft by his players. Regragui, who agreed to take charge only in August, kept tapping his head with both hands while on the run to join the party, as if to say: is this really happening? Morocco are only the fourth African team to reach the World Cup quarter-finals and the first since Ghana in 2010.
Before the game Moroccans – with the help of a few Cameroonian, Ghanaian, Senegalese and Tunisian supporters determined to unite for their continent – had turned Souq Waqif into a postcard of Marrakech. The extra 5,000 tickets released by the Moroccan federation on Sunday in an attempt to satisfy demand proved inadequate.
A partisan crowd enjoyed themselves – some spent almost the entire match with their backs to the pitch in favour of creating a din – but outside the stadium some supporters clashed with riot police. Some resorted to huddling around a mobile phone to watch the action. They need not require any sound, for the reality was loud and clear. Those lucky enough to be inside more than got their money’s worth and, in truth, they probably could have been blindfolded and still told you exactly what was happening.
The fourth meeting between these teams was always going to blur loyalties given their geopolitical relationship. Only the strait of Gibraltar, eight miles at its narrowest point, separates the countries and Ceuta and Melilla have been Spanish exclaves in north Africa since 1580 and 1497 respectively. It was fitting, then, that Achraf Hakimi, who was born in Madrid, took the decisive spot‑kick, chipping the ball down the middle of goal as Unai Simón dived to his right.
Morocco’s players and substitutes streaked after Hakimi. Hakimi, who plays for Paris Saint‑Germain, a club under Qatari ownership, is something of a cover star in Doha’s downtown, on PSG branding in the Msheireb district. Tears streamed down the cheeks of a Morocco supporter, his face-paint running off him.
From the moment a montage of Spain’s passage to the last 16 appeared on the big screens, the tone was set. When the team was read aloud, the Morocco supporters jeered every name. During the Moroccan national anthem Hakimi closed his eyes as if dreaming. As soon as Spain played the ball back to Aymeric Laporte at kick-off, a familiar theme was established. The Morocco supporters shrilled, squealed and whistled for as long as Spain had possession. And boy did they have some possession. Spain completed almost four times as many passes as Morocco. Laporte and Rodri had twice the number of touches of any Morocco player. Morocco’s fans made just about any noise they could in an attempt to destabilise Spain and it seemed to work. Marco Asensio registered Spain’s first shot after almost 26 minutes, their only attempt in the first half.
Spain seemingly planned on causing death by a thousand passes – 1,050 if we are being precise – but Morocco, sitting deep, often with 11 men behind the ball, stuck to the task and their defending was befitting of their nickname: the Atlas Lions. Sofyan Amrabat was everywhere and Sofiane Boufal bright before being replaced.
At times their desire got the better of them, though. Yahia Attiyat Allah accidentally tripped Ezzalzouli in his desperation to steal the ball, but moments later the pair teamed up to block Marcos Llorente’s cross. Morocco’s captain, Romain Saïss, pulled a hamstring in extra‑time but returned to the field partially mummified, his left leg taped up by medical staff. They then survived the substitute Pablo Sarabia’s volley kissing a post deep into three minutes of stoppage time at the end of extra-time.
The scenes were joyous. The final stop on Morocco’s victory lap was to celebrate before their biggest group of supporters, behind their dugout.
It was there where their close relatives, who have been permitted to stay at their plush Doha base, rejoiced. For Morocco, this is a family affair – extended family affair, perhaps, given how many people across the world were backing them here. Among the guests at their West Bay hotel are the midfielder Abdelhamid Sabiri’s parents and Regragui’s mother, Fatima, who until now had never left Paris, let alone France, to follow her son. She will not forget this trip in a hurry.