Security forces, who also deployed mounted officers and dogs, dragged away at least three people in the most serious trouble of the World Cup. One policeman fell off his horse in the disturbances.
Organisers later blamed the trouble on hundreds of ticketless fans, who they said had tried to force their way into Al Rayyan’s Education City stadium. However others who were caught in the melee insisted they had legitimate tickets – and feared they could have got seriously hurt.
In one clip on social media a woman wearing Spanish colours but speaking with an English accent warned police there was a baby in the crowd. “They’re going to get trampled, there’s too many people,” she said.
Other footage showed police in riot gear pushing and shoving fans – crushing them up against a fence – as well as fights breaking out.
Morocco will play Portugal in the quarter-finals – and could play England in the semi-finals next week if both teams get through.
Sources close to the organisers told the Guardian that they had deployed extra security measures – which included soft ticket checks and a far larger police presence – because they had expected Morocco fans without tickets to try to get in.
Long before kick-off, multiple checkpoints were set up outside the metro station, with fans asked to show their tickets at each stage. With 20 minutes remaining, however, police blocked the main entrance amid fears that fans without tickets were trying to barge through.
Some people showed their phones and what appeared to be their passports but were turned away. It was unclear how many people outside the stadium had tickets and how many did not.
The atmosphere outside the stadium did eventually calm down with groups of fans watching the game on mobile phones after shuffling away from the perimeter gate. Despite a large number of empty seats before kick‑off it was later announced as a sell-out with a full capacity of 44,667.
This is not the first time there has been issues involving Morocco’s fans at this World Cup. There was also pushing before the team’s last group match against Canada, with some fans also trying to climb a fence.
A statement from Qatari organisers said: “A number of unticketed supporters gathered outside the Education City Stadium ahead of the Morocco v Spain match in an attempt to gain access to the stadium. ‘Soft’ ticket checks had been established some distance from the stadium perimeter to prevent groups crowding stadium access points.
Despite this, a small group of fans were able to approach the stadium fence and were quickly dispersed by tournament security forces on the ground, with no injuries or further issues reported.
“Fans were redirected to the local free fan zone where the match was being aired. Ensuring the safety and security of every fan is of paramount importance and all decisions taken are directed towards this aim.”
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.
And so, in the end, it was down to him. After two tense, exhausting hours, and seven agonising minutes on the edge, Achraf Hakimi stood on the spot, the whole world watching. Born in Madrid, his was the sixth penalty in the shootout, the chance to send Morocco through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time in their history – and eliminate the country where he grew up. Pressure, what pressure? Hakimi barely broke into a run, instead virtually walking to the ball, and gently dinking it into the net.
Standing there, he shuffled from side to side and smiled. In front of him, Morocco’s fans went wild. Behind him, his teammates were sprinting straight at him. Together they ran towards the corner, where Bono, their goalkeeper and their hero, was waiting, arms wide. And then they fell to fell to the floor and prayed. History had been made, and how they had fought for it. An upset in the knockouts. Spain are out; Africa’s last remaining team are through.
Six and half hours have passed at this World Cup, and still not one opponent has beaten Bono. Morocco have conceded a single goal at this competition, and they scored that one themselves. Even when it went to penalties, there was no way past him, somehow. He saved two of them – from the Spain captain Sergio Busquets and from Valencia midfielder Carlos Soler – having already watched the first hit the post. It had been taken by Pablo Sarabia, who was now in tears.
How could he not be? He had been sent on with just two minutes to go precisely to take the penalty, to get Spain off to a good start but had not succeeded. Not then, and not before either. It was the second time he had hit the post in barely two minutes. If he came on with a mission, he had also been handed a moment. Suddenly appearing a yard from goal, taking the ball on the bounce, he had struck the post in the 123rd minute; which might have been part of the reason why he now did it again, the weight of responsibility just too much. Crikey, this was cruel.
Not that Morocco cared, and they will feel they deserved it. This place, which was very much their place, erupted. A tense, fascinating game had seen them not just resist Spain but have chances of their own, and now they had one that they would not allow to slip through their fingers. Abdelhamid Sabiri had scored, Sarabia had missed and it began. While Badr Benoun did not score from the spot, Unai Simon diving to save a weak effort, Hakim Ziyech did. And now Hakimi had as well, the coolest man in the whole of Qatar.
The knockout game between Spain and Morocco will bring millions of fans on both sides of the strait of Gibraltar together around screens in bars and living rooms to see which country will keep alive its dream of World Cup glory.
Nowhere will loyalties likely be more blurred than in Spain’s tiny north African territory of Ceuta where identities, both national and religious, often mix in unpredictable ways that confound the easy categories of sports fandom.
Sulaika Hosain, a 26-year-old Ceuta native, feels “100% Spanish” yet when the game kicks off on Tuesday in Qatar, her sympathies will tilt towards Morocco, the land of her grandfather.
“I am a Spaniard and want Spain to win, but I am rooting for Morocco … When Morocco plays, something moves inside me,” she said at the indoor playground where she works. “Let them win something, so people can say: ‘Look, Morocco is not just a poor place.”
Some World Cup games become supercharged with layers of political symbolism, such as the match between USA and Iran last week. Spain and Morocco are far from geopolitical rivals, but their long and complex relationship will no doubt be part of the backdrop to the game in Al Rayyan.
Ceuta has been in Spanish possession since 1580. Its mixed population of Christians and Muslims, Spanish and Moroccan residents and day workers, live in relative harmony behind a border fence that many desperate migrants from across Africa see as their last barrier to a better life.
However, the city of 85,000 recently became the flashpoint of the biggest diplomatic crisis in recent memory between Madrid and Rabat. In May 2021, the Moroccan government dropped its border controls and let thousands of young migrants from Morocco and sub-Saharan countries pour into Ceuta, which Morocco does not officially recognise as Spanish territory.
The move was interpreted as Morocco’s retaliation for Spain’s decision to allow a pro-independence leader from the disputed Western Sahara region to be treated for Covid-19 at a Spanish hospital. That, combined with a border closed by Morocco for two years to control the pandemic, damaged the economy on both side of the frontier. Tensions were only calmed and the border reopened after Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, met with Moroccan King Mohammed VI in April.
But for many people like Hosain, who live or work in Ceuta, the game won’t tear them in two. It is more like a win-win scenario: they will be happy for either Spain or Morocco to reach the quarter-finals and will pull for the winner to go all the way and lift the World Cup trophy in Qatar.
Mohamed Laarbi, 28, manages a bar in Ceuta that is showing all the World Cup matches. He is a third-generation Spaniard and is fully backing Spain. Regardless of the result, he does not expect the game to lead to any serious problems like the riots in Belgium and the Netherlands after Morocco beat Belgium in the group phase.
“Morocco is playing well, but when they meet Spain they will hit a wall,” he joked. “And then the game is over. That is it.”
Even so, Laarbi acknowledged that he and other Muslims from Ceuta or the other Spanish territory of Melilla farther east on the coast are caught in a no man’s land.
“Moroccans say that we are not Moroccan, that we are sons of Spaniards, while Spaniards from the (Iberian) Peninsula say that we are not Spaniards,” he said. “There are people from the peninsula who when you say you are from Ceuta, you have to show them where it is, and they say: ‘That is Africa.’”
Morocco’s team is a reflection of the links with Spain, where Moroccans make up the single largest foreign community with 800,000 residents in a country of 47 million. Several Moroccan players play for Spanish clubs, including Sevilla striker Youssef En-Nesyri and goalkeeper Yassine Bounou. Talented right-back Achraf Hakimi, a Paris Saint-Germain player, was born in Madrid.
For Mohamed Et Touzani, a 35-year-old hairdresser in Ceuta, the message is clear: just enjoy the game. Originally from central Morocco, Et Touzani has lived in different parts of Spain for 15 years and said it is “like my home”. He has a house, like many people with Moroccan roots, across the border. He plans to watch the game with Spanish friends at what he called a Christian bar in Ceuta. He will cheer for Morocco.
“Soccer is soccer, and politics are politics. So we are going to play a soccer game and have a good time, but with respect. That is the most important thing,” he said. “Morocco has red and green [in its flag], Spain has red and yellow. We have this in common. We are neighbours, and we must live like we were brothers.”
It is a mistake that has never really been fully explained. “He didn’t expect it and didn’t understand what had happened,” Achraf Hakimi’s brother Nabil recalled. “They had a game near Bilbao and when they got there they told him he couldn’t play.”
Fifa’s decision to ban Hakimi in September 2016 as part of its investigation into whether Real Madrid had illegally signed underage players from overseas certainly came as a shock to everyone, not least the teenage full-back who had just made his first-team debut for Zinedine Zidane’s side on their pre-season tour.
“I think Fifa was only checking rare names from immigrants more than where the boy was born, which is what happened with him,” said Rabie Takassa, who works as a scout in Spain for the Moroccan Football Federation, in an interview in 2017. “They saw a Moroccan name and he was punished without deserving it. Real Madrid and his family gave all the papers required showing he was born in a hospital in Madrid, that he studied here, that he spent all his life growing up here. It was a complicated time for him because he didn’t know when Fifa would give him the green light to play again.”
Along with Zidane’s sons Enzo and Luca, Hakimi was back a few weeks later in Real’s reserve side and made his senior debut for Morocco the following month in a 4–0 win against Canada. He had represented the Atlas Lions at junior level and Spain’s attempt to persuade the attacking right-back who grew up in Getafe – a suburb of Madrid – to accept a call-up for their under-19s a year before had fallen on deaf ears.
“I discovered him in 2010 and I’ve been keeping an eye on him since then,” Takassa said. “We’ve spoken with him regularly and the federation’s technical director travelled to Madrid to see him. We’ve outlined our project, which is very competitive, and I don’t think he’s ever had any doubts.”
Hakimi will win his 58th cap, at the age of 24, in Morocco’s historic showdown against Spain in the last 16 of the World Cup on Tuesday. It will be a poignant moment for the Paris Saint-Germain player, who celebrated the famous victory over Belgium in the group stage by kissing his mother in the stands and will now attempt to go one better than the 1986 side that lost to West Germany at this stage. “I love you Mum,” Hakimi tweeted after the match, accompanied by photos of them embracing.
Saida Mou, Hakimi’s mother, used to clean houses in the Spanish capital, and her husband was a street vendor. “We come from a modest family that struggled to earn a living,” Hakimi said in an interview when he joined Borussia Dortmund on loan from Madrid in 2018. “Today I fight every day for them. They sacrificed themselves for me. They deprived my brothers of many things for me to succeed.”
At the last count, there were almost 900,000 Moroccans living in Spain, making them the largest foreign community legally settled in the country. Hakimi is by no means the only member of Walid Regragui’s cosmopolitan squad who was born overseas.
Only 12 – the fewest of any nation in Qatar – were born in the country they are representing in an illustration of Morocco’s large diaspora. The winger Sofiane Boufal and captain Romain Saïss were, like Regragui, born and raised in France; the midfield general Sofyan Amrabat and Hakim Ziyech grew up in the Netherlands; and several of the squad were born in Belgium, such as Genk’s emerging talent Bilal El Khannous. The reserve goalkeeper Munir was born in Melilla, an autonomous city of Spain on the north African mainland.
Even with Ziyech’s return after he announced his international retirement following a disagreement with the former coach Vahid Halilhodzic, Hakimi remains the team’s star. Having become the first Moroccan to play for Real Madrid, in 2017, his brilliant two-year spell in the Bundesliga earned a move to Internazionale, where he thrived under Antonio Conte and won the scudetto. Hakimi turned down a move to Chelsea to join PSG for an initial €60m last year and has developed a strong understanding with Lionel Messi. But his qualities are no less appreciated by Regragui, particularly after the assist for Morocco’s second goal in the final group match against Canada, when his brilliant pass from his own half set up Youssef En-Nesyri to score.
“Look at Hakimi – he played injured to the very last minute; all Moroccans should praise him every day,” Regragui said after Morocco sealed top spot in Group F.
The thigh injury he sustained in the opening match against Croatia is being carefully managed by Morocco’s medical staff but there is little doubt Hakimi will be ready to face the country of his birth.
“Here in Paris you play for the team of the city, but it’s not the same to play with the team of your country,” Hakimi said in an interview before the World Cup with Vogue Arabia that also featured his wife, the actor Hiba Abouk, who is best known for her role in El Príncipe, a TV drama set in Ceuta, another Spanish autonomous city in northern Morocco.
“Millions and millions of people are going to support you because you play for them. It’s like you play for your grandfather and their grandfathers. You play for a lot of people, a lot of Moroccans.”
Amid the stultifying debate over whether the ball had crossed the byline before Ao Tanaka’s winner for Japan against Spain, something more important was lost. The goal ultimately ensured that, for the first time, every inhabited continent was represented in a World Cup last 16. Less than a day would pass before South Korea enhanced Asia’s contingent, guaranteeing the most diverse knockout stage in the tournament’s history.
It makes for a mouthwatering set of ties and will also be music to the ears of Qatar, which assiduously posits itself as a unifying force regardless of evidence to the contrary. Hosting a competition with a greater global spread of participants than any other is not hard to spin positively: the mix is a consequence of drama that, after a slow start, gave this group stage a claim to be the best ever on pure footballing terms.
Those outside Europe and South America have particular cause to agree. Six countries from beyond football’s traditional powerhouse continents have reached the knockout stage and, in the nine previous iterations to include a last 16, that had never been done. Africa has matched its best performance in qualifying two of its five entrants, Morocco and Senegal, without the presence of stars such as Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, Victor Osimhen and Mohamed Salah; Asia has equalled its high watermark of 2002. The Asian confederation can claim its best performance given Australia have fallen under its aegis since 2006.
What does any of this mean? It may be folly to draw sweeping conclusions given, for those not in Europe, small allocations mean the line between perceived success and failure can be wafer thin. One result can change everything. Only four years have passed since Africa was soul-searching after failing to send anyone beyond the group stage, Didier Drogba describing it as “a big step back”.
Now it can point to a World Cup that, on one level, has already been its best: African teams have won a record seven matches in Qatar and only a decent Ghana side, whose fortunes turned on André Ayew’s early penalty miss against Uruguay, recorded fewer than four points. The standard of football in Africa has not rollercoastered that wildly over the past half-decade in practice.
“It’s very, very difficult to get far if you have five slots,” the then Ghana manager, Otto Addo, pointed out after their opening defeat by Portugal. “If you have 12 or 14 slots the probability that a team will get further is much, much higher.”
Africa will have at least nine sides at the expanded World Cup in 2026, one of whose vanishingly few blessings is that increased allocations for the previously less favoured regions should make it easier to detect trends. Asia’s contingent will rise by at least two. A third of the slots will come from Europe, down from its current share of 40%.
Given hopeful proclamations of a new world order did not come to pass after 2002, when Senegal joined the cohosts South Korea in the quarter-finals, optimism about a wider levelling up should be tempered. But the idea is not entirely fanciful. It was striking to hear the Morocco coach, Walid Megraoui, speaking after the tight goalless draw with Croatia that set the foundations for his team’s later success.
“We played like a European team and that’s why I am so happy,” he said. “If we had played brilliantly and lost then everyone would be very upset. We played in a very solid way like a European team and made it difficult for them to play against us. We need to look at African specifics and understand how to win when a match is tight.”
It suggests that, in a football world of few secrets, the intensely drilled methods honed in the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A may finally have seeped down into the more chaotic realm of the international game. Bar Qatar and Saudi Arabia, whose respective fortunes were decidedly mixed, every squad in this tournament has a generous sprinkling of players from those major domestic leagues.
That is hardly new: it has been the case for two decades. But when they are augmented by a generation of tactically smart, quick-thinking coaches who understand how to harness the qualities taught abroad in a short preparation time, perhaps it heralds the next step. “The gold standard in the world,” is how the Japan coach, Hajime Moriyasu, referred to European football before defeating Spain. The Japanese game has had strong links with Germany in particular for many years.
On one level, such assessments breed discomfort: the instinctive thought is that Asian and African sides should not feel compelled to eschew their own styles in deference to theories honed in Manchester, Munich and Madrid. Homogenisation should not be the only way. But that is where football has long been headed and it becomes more palatable if the “European” benchmark is seen as a global one, practised by players and coaches from across the world, that happens to have taken hold there.
South American teams have long trodden a successful balance between what works locally and abroad. But this has been an unprepossessing World Cup for Conmebol so far, only two of their teams progressing. That has only happened twice before. Brazil and Argentina both began the tournament with convincing claims to go all the way but, even if Ecuador and Uruguay would both have qualified with four points in a different year, there is no support acts in the knockout stage.
Again, those fine margins: seven of the eight groups contained a team that missed out despite recording a win and a draw. It means nobody has too much cause to fret; if hitherto unheralded outposts are expressing themselves more volubly now, it simply means this tournament is doing the job it should. And even if Europe has only twice been represented more thinly than this in a last 16, a 50% share of the places still tells a tale.
For all the analysis and grasping for reasons, on Saturday night an Australian striker called Mitchell Duke from the Japanese second-tier side Fagiano Okayama will have had reasonable cause to believe he can outgun Lionel Messi and Argentina. Maybe that, more than anything else, speaks of the breadth that lies in front of us.
Morocco are through to the last 16 of the World Cup for the second time after early goals from Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri brushed aside whatever suspense remained of their progress, sealing a nightmarish exit to a tournament for Canada that began with so much promise eight nights ago.
The mighty Atlas Lions entered the group-stage finale on a tailwind of confidence, having followed a cagey goalless draw with Croatia with an emphatic 2-0 win over the second-ranked Belgians and needing only a point to book a place in the knockout stage for the first time in nearly four decades. They finished it, owing to Croatia’s draw with Belgium across town, the improbable winners of a group above of a pair of European giants fresh off runs to the last four in 2018.
“We said we wanted to give everything we’ve got to get out of the group stages,” said Walid Regragui, three months after he was appointed Morocco’s manager. “We can tick that box now. So why not aim for the sky? We needed to change and we needed to change our mentality. We’re not going to stop here. We’ve got a lot of respect for all of the different opponents, but we are going to be a very difficult team to beat.”
Les Rouges, who were picked apart by Croatia and eliminated from the competition after outplaying Belgium in their opener, appeared out of sorts from the start here amid a hostile atmosphere that jeered their every touch. Morocco needed only four minutes to send their supporters into delirium as Steven Vitoria’s undercooked backpass to Milan Borjan forced the goalkeeper to dash from his penalty area with En-Nesyri closing in. A harried Borjan played it directly to the Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech, who chipped in from 35 yards and ignited the mass of red packed into the stadium’s south end – the howler of the tournament and surely the nadir of Canada’s first World Cup appearance since their largely forgettable debut in 1986.
Canada were able to get their feet under them but failed to generate a meaningful threat from their possession and set pieces and it was not long before Morocco were bossing the midfield again. They doubled their margin after 22 minutes through En-Nesyri, when the Sevilla striker chased down a long ball from the back, darted between a pair of defenders and beat Borjan at his near post to become the first Moroccan player to score in two World Cups.
There were remnants from Canada of the pace and industry that powered their swaggering performance against Belgium, but they were constantly done in by lack of organisation from front to back, unable to string together more than a few passes or long stretches of the first half. Their woes were embodied by an inability to get their star Alphonso Davies involved as the 22-year-old Bayern Munich star was constantly denied service by Morocco’s swarming defenders.
The well-drilled Morocco backline marshaled by Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi were one of two teams left in the competition, along with Brazil, who had yet to concede. But Canada pulled one back six minutes before half-time when Nayef Aguerd blocked a cross from the left past his keeper inside the near post, the first own goal of the tournament and a cruel end to Morocco’s run of six successive clean sheets.
With nothing left to play for but the chance to end their tournament on a high note and set a winning tone for when they co-host four years from now, Canada’s fighting spirit shone through during the second half as John Herdman – the manager from Consett in County Durham – made a triple substitution at the hour and threw numbers forward with abandon.
They came agonisingly close to an equaliser when a header by the ageless captain Atiba Hutchinson – the oldest outfield player in Qatar – rattled the bar and caromed down on the goalline. But Morocco’s rigid backline refused to budge, ensuring Africa’s record sixth win at a World Cup while becoming the first team from the continent to take first place in a World Cup group since Nigeria in 1998.
“We’ve raised our bar finishing top of Concacaf and I thought that was a good standard to bring in,” Herdman said. “We always said the world level is the next level and I don’t think we were far off. Two inches tonight. Two inches from getting our first result. That’s all it was.”
For Morocco’s squad and most of the estimated 45,000 fans following them in Qatar, 1986 is not even a distant memory. Even the coach, Walid Regragui, was only 10 when Mohamed Timoumi, Abdelkrim Merry and the goalkeeper-captain Badou Zaki inspired the Atlas Lions to become the first African side to reach the knockout stages of a World Cup courtesy of a 3-1 win against Portugal. “No one expected us to beat them,” the defender Noureddine Bouyahyaoui said recently.
The success of 36 years ago could be about to repeat itself, with Morocco needing a point against Canada on Thursday to guarantee a place in the last 16 after their win against Belgium. Regragui’s side have not conceded a goal in six matches since he took over in August, in echoes of the 1986 team.
That side had qualified for the tournament in Mexico after letting in one goal in eight matches and began with another two clean sheets against England and Poland. Then came their best performance in the final group-stage match.
Facing a Portugal side who had reached the semi-finals of the European Championship two year earlier, two goals from Abderrazak Khairi had José Faria’s team 2-0 up at the break before Merry made sure that they topped the group. “Lots of people expected us to lose and lots of people lost on the lottery,” said the Brazilian coach. “We could go home now. It’s as if we’ve won the world championship already.”
A Lothar Matthäus goal for West Germany from a free-kick in the 87th minute of a gruelling second-round match eventually ended Morocco’s participation in Mexico and it has not escaped anyone’s notice in the north African nation that they could be on course to meet Germany again at this tournament should the stars align.
“The 1986 team remains the best in the history of Morocco,” says the Moroccan pundit Jalal Bounouar. “Any achievement like this will make the fans remember the names of the players because it is not that easy for African teams to compete with European and Latin American teams. There is this comparison with Mexico because there is a general feeling that we can qualify. We can see that the players and the coach are playing high-level tactical football. There is also a winning spirit – it is rare to see this in the national team.”
Regragui – a former defender who won 45 caps – succeeded the veteran Vahid Halilhodzic after excelling in club management and has galvanised his squad into a formidable defensive unit that is, in his words, “very difficult” to beat. But it has been the return of three key players – Noussair Mazraoui, Abderrazak Hamdallah and the playmaker Hakim Ziyech – from the international wilderness that has helped lift Morocco to the next level.
Regragui said of Chelsea’s Ziyech on Wednesday: “A lot of people talk about him, about he is a crazy guy, he is a difficult guy to manage, he can’t help the team. For me, what I say, when you give him the love, the confidence, he can die for you. And it’s what I give him … he is a big player, playing on a big team in Europe and you see he is a different player with the national team. All of the coaches give him the confidence, the same with the staff.”
According to Abdellah Aarab, who owns the Moroccan football website almarssadpro.com, Ziyech is not the only player to have benefited from Regragui’s approach. “The biggest thing the coach has done is motivate the whole squad,” he says. Bounouar adds: “His ability to communicate and the positive atmosphere he creates within the team have given him the respect of fans and players themselves, including the superstars.”
Before a game at the Al Thumama stadium that is expected to be dominated by Morocco fans as they anticipate another historic moment, Regragui condemned riots that broke out in Belgium and the Netherlands after Morocco’s win over Belgium.
“It’s very difficult to see that – you need to respect the country where you are born and live,” he said. “But I think it’s not Moroccan people. Moroccan people have more respect and in our culture you have to respect everybody. You can be happy, do your party but you have to respect everybody and I don’t like what has happened. I hope after Canada the Moroccan people enjoy but only to dance and to cry about what happens on the pitch and be respectful.”
Should Morocco follow in the footsteps of Faria’s side and book a place in the last 16, there will be plenty of reasons to celebrate. “If we do it, I think they will be remembered as heroes just as we do with the 1986 team,” says Aarab. “That will be a great achievement.”
Kevin De Bruyne called it right, this ageing Belgium team have no chance of winning the World Cup on current form. Morocco succeeded where Canada failed in punishing another flat display from the team ranked second in the world to record their first victory at a World Cup since beating Scotland in 1998.
Two substitutes, Abdelhamid Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhlal, scored the goals that gave Morocco only their third ever win on the World Cup stage and sparked wild celebrations all around the Al Thumama Stadium. It was thoroughly deserved. Morocco were incisive while Belgium lacked ideas, energetic while Belgium had lead in their legs, De Bruyne and Eden Hazard especially, and solid in defence while even Thibaut Courtois creaked in the Belgium goal. Roberto Martínez’s team can still qualify for the last 16 but they look a fading shadow of the side that finished third in Russia in 2018.
A stirring rendition of the Moroccan national anthem confirmed the vast majority of the stadium were supporting the north African team. Morocco’s every touch was met with impassioned screams; Belgium’s with jeers and whistles. Belgium attempted to take the sting out of the crowd by controlling the tempo and dominating possession, 78% of it in the opening 15 minutes alone. That is one way of describing the Belgian performance. Another is that they bored everyone to tears.
Martínez’s team initially responded to their laboured and lucky opening win over Canada. The Belgium manager reverted to a back four and made three changes including the introduction of Amadou Onana, who was largely responsible for the modest second-half improvement against the Canadians. This time they started on the front foot, with Michy Batshuayi forcing a fine early save out of Munir El Kajoui after latching on to Thorgan Hazard’s threaded pass into the box, but mostly it was possession football with no penetration.
Onana headed over from close range after meeting Thorgan Hazard’s inswinging corner with a towering leap. The Everton midfielder was also harshly booked for accidentally catching Azzedine Ounahi with an arm as they jumped for a header. Onana’s second booking of the competition means he will miss Belgium’s final group match against Croatia.
Morocco were forced to change their goalkeeper moments before kick-off when Yassine Bounou fell ill. Bono, as he is more commonly known, lined up for the national anthem but was replaced by the time Morocco gathered for their team photograph. “With or without you?” the Morocco head coach, Walid Regragui, might possibly have asked his first-choice keeper before summonsing El Kajoui from the bench.
Hakim Ziyech was hugely influential for a Morocco side whose confidence and sense of adventure increased as the contest developed. Pinpoint crossfield passes between the Chelsea winger on the right and former Southampton midfielder Sofiane Boufal on the left opened up the Belgium defence several times. Selim Amallah volleyed over after one such move while right-back Achraf Hakimi wasted a good opening when blazing wide from a tight angle with striker Youssef En-Nesyri waiting for a cross in the middle.
Morocco believed they had their first goal of the World Cup on the cusp of half-time after Ziyech was fouled by Thorgan Hazard just outside the penalty area. Ziyech took the free-kick himself and whipped it goalwards. Courtois, unsighted by the inrushing Morocco duo of Romain Saïss and Hakimi, was deceived by the flight and a possible touch off Saïss. The ball squirmed through his grasp and over the line but the Real Madrid keeper’s embarrassment, and the wild Morocco celebrations, were curtailed by VAR. Saïss’s shoulder was offside and the Mexican referee César Arturo Ramos disallowed Ziyech’s strike following a pitch-side review.
Courtois would not be spared when Morocco repeated the routine with 17 minutes of normal time remaining. After a Thomas Meunier foul on the right, substitute Sabiri drilled a free-kick towards Saïss moving in at the near post. The central defender, onside this time, pulled his midriff out of the way of Sabiri’s delivery and Belgium’s goalkeeper was deceived once again. The ball flew under his grasp and he would not be spared by VAR on this occasion.
Martínez had already made several substitutions in an attempt to inject an end product into Belgium’s display. They did not succeed, although El Kajoui answered his country’s call to save from Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Batshuayi.
Panic was rising in the stands as Belgium pressed for a late equaliser and five minutes of stoppage time were added. It turned to pandemonium when Ziyech escaped down the right and pulled the ball back for Aboukhlal who, allowed too much space inside the area by Axel Witsel, swept a superb finish in to the top corner. Morocco’s exhausted players collapsed to the ground when the final whistle sounded minutes later. They were soon back on their feet to join the party in the stands.
The drums of the Morocco ultras behind the goal suggested the outcome had been favourable. A high tempo rat-a-tat-tat broke out on the final whistle, at a tempo that echoed the energy of the north Africans’ performance as they took a point from the 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia in an engaging goalless draw.
Clearcut chances were limited at the Al Bayt stadium, but both goalkeepers had to make decisive interventions either side of half-time as first Nikola Vlasic then Azzedine Ounahi had a chance to open the scoring.
This was another fixture which offered the dissonant effect of a patchy crowd but a lusty atmosphere. The crowd of 59,407 was nearly 10,000 under capacity, according to official figures, but with the vast majority supporting Morocco there was a consistent, engaging noise. It seems likely that this equivalent to a home support helped the men in red give a high energy performance.
Morocco had the better of a first half of few chances, consistently unsettling Croatia with an effective press and midfield physicality. The Sevilla forward Youssef En-Nesyri was a danger, stretching a Croatia backline that included the 33-year-old Dejan Lovren. In the centre of the field, Sofyan Amrabat was enjoying his engagement with Luka Modric, throwing his weight into every challenge.
Beyond one smart Achraf Hakimi cross that eluded En-Nesyri’s forehead, however, Morocco did not create any clear openings and Croatia should have opened the scoring as half-time approached. A long-range pass from Modric forced Bono to charge to the edge of his box and punch clear ahead of Andrej Kramaric. Mateo Kovacic immediately recovered possession, however, and slipped the ball to the left and the full-back Borna Sosa whose low cross found Vlasic six yards out. The former Everton and West Ham man should have scored but somehow Bono got down quickly enough to save a low poke with his legs. Seconds later Modric had an opportunity to drive home from the edge of the box, only to flash his shot over the bar.
Zlatko Dalic replaced Vlasic with Atalanta’s Mario Pasalic at half-time and the game resumed in the manner it had finished. Within seconds of the restart Morocco had fashioned their first real chance of the game with Sofiane Boufal forcing Dominik Livakovic to parry the ball with a fierce drive, the ball dropped into the path of Ounahi, whose stooping header was on target but blocked by the keeper.
Immediately after that chance the ball ran up the other end and Hakimi was forced to turn a Josip Juranovic cross behind for a corner. The delivery from Modric was typically devilish and Bono had to get low again to push the ball away. Kovacic’s follow-up shot was then blocked by Amrabat before the ball was finally cleared.
A flurry of substitutions followed, some because of injury as in the case of Morocco’s Noussair Mazraoui, others to maintain the level of commitment as this early afternoon fixture played out in the heat. The tempo and rhythm was predictably disrupted, however, and as the game moved into its final stages it became clear that the two sides respected each other enough to be accepting of a draw.