Morocco become superheroes with World Cup quarter-final victory over Portugal

Atlas Lions rewrite history after Youssef En-Nesyri header secures thrilling win in Doha and a place in the last four

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Morocco, already history makers, are heroes once more. Superheroes, even.

Not just for the North African nation, but for their continent and what feels the entire Arab world. They are World Cup semi-finalists following a performance of passion and panache against Portugal in Doha on Saturday night.

They took the lead, through Youssef En-Nesyri’s towering header right before half-time, then defended, as they have done seemingly for ever, like their lives depended on it.

Fernando Santos summoned Cristiano Ronaldo from the bench, but even the all-time leading scorer in men’s international football could not deprive them. Goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, known more widely as Bono, delivered another incredible display, his fingertip save late on from Joao Felix and brilliant block from Ronaldo encapsulating his team’s unwavering resolve.

And then, even more history. Morocco are among the final four at Qatar 2022, lasting longer than the Belgium or the Spain teams they vanquished, or the Germany that could not escape the group, or the Netherlands, and even the Brazil that headed for the exit on Friday.

On Saturday, at an Al Thumama Staadium that shook and shuddered with Morocco passion, Walid Regragui’s sublime side wrote another chapter in one of the tournament's greatest tales.

France, the current champions, stand between Morocco and a World Cup final. Say that again: Morocco are one match from football’s showpiece event, two from winning the whole thing. Has this competition ever known the like?

If the celebrations that greeted the country’s first qualification for the knockouts in 36 years were deservedly energetic, if those that followed becoming the tournament’s only ever Arab quarter-finalist were emphatic, then what about now?

The goal the record books will say sealed it came on 42 minutes. Yahya Attiat Allah hung up a cross and, with Portugal goalkeeper Diogo Costa lured underneath, En-Nesyri vaulted higher than he probably ever has to head home. The goalkeeper will rue his rush of blood, yet En-Nesyri made the ball his. It was his goal; a goal for all Morocco, Africa and the Arab world.

Not long into the second half, and having presumably seen enough, Santos sent for Ronaldo. His national team’s regular captain, it represented the forward's 196th international cap, matching the men’s record held by Kuwait’s Bader Al Mutawa. But he could not add another goal on a supposed milestone night.

Morocco soon lost their own captain, Romain Saiss, to injury, the patched-up skipper unable to give any more. Within seconds, Goncalo Ramos, the hat-trick hero in Ronaldo’s absence in the last 16, headed off target, and Bruno Fernandes fizzed a shot over the Morocco bar.

Sensing the tide shifting, Regragui threw on Badr Benoun to plug his defence. It was Bono, though, who proved the difference-maker at the death, directing Felix’s drive away from goal and then getting down well to thwart Ronaldo.

With eight minutes flashed for additional time, and nerves fraying all around, Walid Cheddira collected two yellow cards in the space of a minute and was sent off. Then Zakaria Aboukhlal raced clear and fluffed at chip at Costa. With seconds remaining, Pepe headed wide for Portugal when he appeared poised to score. Would their be another, Netherlands- or Croatia-esque, sting in the tail?

Not now. Morocco hung on, only that solitary goal in five matches conceded. The 22nd World Cup has produced the first African semi-finalist in the annals of the tournament.

In truth, Morocco earned it, producing another performance for the ages.

Updated: December 11, 2022, 8:04 PM