Youssef En-Nesyri scored, Cristiano Ronaldo cried and the world joined Morocco and Africa in celebration. Football’s great.
“We shouldn’t be surprised,” said Jon Champion on commentary. We should though, shouldn’t we? Even Yassine Bounou, whom he was talking about, who won the Ricardo Zamora Trophy as La Liga’s best goalkeeper last season, has been a surprise at this World Cup, quite simply because he plays for Morocco.
He wasn’t supposed to still be making finger-tip saves as we put the baubles on the Christmas tree. Hakim Ziyech wasn’t supposed to be pinging passes as we munch on the first batch of mince pies. It should be Sofiane Boufal’s dancing feet roasting in front of the open fire. This just couldn’t happen.
Croatia couldn’t beat Morocco, who then smashed Belgium before beating Spain and now Portugal. Luka Modric, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Pedri, Gavi, Bruno Fernandes, Cristiano Ronaldo – no bugger can even score against them. And who the f***ing hell are these guys, anyway?
It took us at least two Morocco games at this World Cup to appreciate it was Sofyan Amrabat dominating opposition playmakers rather than brother and Watford legend Nordin, but we now can’t take our eyes off the midfielder. The injured Nayef Aguerd, one revelation of this tournament (for West Ham fans as much as anyone), was replaced by another in Jawad El Yamiq, who was just as doggedly brilliant in defence as his compatriot against hat-trick hero of the last 16 Goncalo Ramos and Ronaldo, who came on in the second half to hit his one chance tamely at the goalkeeper. Boo-hoo.
And who the bloody hell is Azzedine Ounahi other than the scourge of Ruben Neves and Bernardo Silva? He’s not going to be playing for Angers for much longer. Yahia Attiyat Allah, who plays for Wydad AC in Casablanca, walked into a World Cup quarter-final – of all the gin joints – for his third ever international start to shut down Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Dalot. Achraf Hakimi, tipped by many before the tournament to have to carry this Morocco side, rather blends in, not because he’s not brilliant, but because they all are.
You will perhaps note a touch of Premier League or European centricity. This is a team with just two defeats in their last 45 games, after all. But Morocco is also a team ranked 22nd in the world, three places below Wales. This is an extraordinary achievement by some very good players, brought together by a very good manager to become the greatest African team in World Cup history. Not only are they the first nation from their continent to reach the semi-finals, but only the third outside Europe and South America – after the USA in 1930 and South Korea in 2002 – to get this far.
Walid Regragui has only been in charge of this team for 100 days. And perhaps the biggest compliment we can pay him is that his international team looks like a club side. There is no way through the midfield and the centre-backs’ ability to be in the right place to clear the ball from wide positions is too consistent to be accidental. It’s there defending that’s truly incredible, but their attacking play is also brilliant in that it combines being organised with being hard to predict.
“He just wants it!” cried Ally McCoist in his inimitable style as Youssef En-Nesyri leapt in front of Diogo Costa to head Morocco into the history books. And from that point at the end of the first half – for all their possession, probing and a couple of decent chances – it felt like Portugal had no hope with the weight of 40 odd thousand fans in the stadium and millions more across the world against them. Because although Fernando Santos won hearts through dropping the crybaby, only eleven Bukayo Saka’s could be more likeable than this Morocco side.
A win for Morocco. A win for Africa. A win for the Arab world. A win for the World Cup. A win for the Ronaldo haters. A win for football.