DOHA, Qatar — Morocco has made history by becoming the first African team to reach the World Cup semifinals. Ronaldo, who came on as a replacement in the second half, had no effect on the outcome.
Morocco represents another step forward for the Arab world and a new frontier for the Middle East. Morocco’s reputation-shattering World Cup trip has now brought down another European behemoth.
Morocco’s soccer squad outdid itself after plunging Arabs throughout the world into a level of joy it had never known before by reaching the World Cup quarterfinals. In a display of defensive tenacity and offensive flair, Morocco defeated Portugal 1-0 to become the first African team to reach the semifinals of soccer’s most prestigious competition, and to continue their spectacular journey through Qatar.
Morocco, who has never before been in contention for the World Cup, is now just one game away from a spot in the final, having defeated Belgium, Spain, and now Portugal, due to a first-half goal from Youssef En-Nesyri on Saturday.
Morocco’s storybook run has seen millions of Arabs, Muslims and North Africans coalesce behind a single team in a way that this tournament has not seen.
That fanatical support was in full display inside the Al Thumama Stadium, which for 90 minutes (plus eight minutes of heart-stopping injury time) resembled a corner of Casablanca, Rabat or Marrakesh.
Every period of Portuguese possession was met with ear-piercing whistles, and every Moroccan incursion the other way greeted with the type of boisterous cheering that threatened to pull the ball into the Portuguese net.
While Morocco celebrates its victory and ponders the next step of its magical journey, the victory almost certainly means the end of an era, the end of one of the most celebrated careers in soccer history, almost certainly at the highest level.
Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in Qatar as one of the world’s most recognized men, one of the greatest soccer players of all time. However, he arrived as an uncomfortable tourist, having destroyed bridges and been abandoned by Manchester United before earning his spot in Portugal’s starting lineup, a position he had held for over two decades, first under scrutiny and then ripped away by the time Portugal reached the round of 16.
Then Ronaldo watched as his young replacement, Gonçalo Ramos, announced himself on the highest stage with a stunning hat-trick against Switzerland, producing the credentials that immediately installed the Benfica forward as an heir apparent.
However, against Morocco’s iron willed defense, which has only been pierced once in the World Cup, and that by one of its own, Ramos and the others wilted as the wall of whistles reached fever level and remained there. Ronaldo took the stage with 40 minutes left to do one more heroic deed, a final cinematic moment in a career replete with cinematic moments.
Ronaldo was unable to deliver a rescue act at the end of an onslaught that, with 20 minutes remaining, comprised a line of four attackers in increasingly more desperate attempts to shatter Moroccan resistance. He sprinted, he pursued balls from behind, he leapt to get his head to balls, he attempted to locate shooting angles, he did everything he could to break the redshirted Moroccan resistance line.
So did his teammates. But nothing worked. Shots were blocked, tackles were made as Moroccan numbers seemingly multiplied in the face of incessant waves of Portuguese attacks.
Portugal simply could not get the ball to break for it in the way Morocco had in the first half.
Youssef En-Neyseri, who was questionable for the game due to an injury, timed his run perfectly, meeting Yahia Attiyat Allah’s high hanging cross just before goalkeeper Diego Costa could get a hold on it.
Portugal nearly immediately responded with what would have been a tournament-winning goal, as Bruno Fernandes’ half-volley from the narrowest of angles came crashing back off the bar.
And that, despite the wave after wave attacks, despite the number of forwards Portugal threw on the field, despite the presence of Ronaldo, was as close as Portugal would get. There were near misses, and those that did find the target were repelled by the Moroccan goalkeeper.
Morocco was reduced to 10 men with barely injury time remaining when Walid Cheddira, a substitute, was sent off after accumulating two yellow cards in rapid succession as the game changed into something resembling soccer but looked to have reached a pitch of its own. Attack and defense, athletes putting their bodies on the line
Finally, the whistling from the stands came to a halt. Portugal’s players knelt, and Ronaldo was escorted down the tunnel, in tears. Morocco, swept up in the chaos, gathered one last burst of energy to embark on festivities that would live long in the memory.
While one hero leaves sport’s largest stage, the World Cup has given birth to a squad of Arab heroes.