Morocco is the first African team to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup. They succeed with heart, passion and the right mentality. Coach Walid Regragui wept with joy and compared his team to Rocky Balboa.
Now they are legends. Morocco had a whole continent behind them, they had a whole region behind them and they made history. At the first World Cup in the Arab region, the Atlas Lions became the first African team to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup. And how they did it. With heart, passion and humility.
Cheered on by a stadium full of frantic fans, coach Walid Regragui's side held off Portugal's second-half rush, losing player after player. In the end they fell to the ground they had made theirs. Then they realized what they had just accomplished and ran to their fans. Defender Jawad El-Yamiq wrapped himself in a double flag. She showed Qatar and she showed Morocco. Together they danced, sang and cheered.
They beat Portugal 1-0. There is no way around them at this World Cup. They played against Croatia, against Belgium, against Canada, against Spain and now against the 2016 European champions. They never lost, conceded only one goal, against Canada of all places, and improved from game to game. When all other Arab countries were eliminated, Morocco was still there and when all other African countries were eliminated, Morocco was still there. They played not just for themselves, but for the pride of a continent, for Africa, which has long dreamed of winning a World Cup. They also played for the pride of the region, which stretches from Morocco in the west to just the Emirates in the east. And they also played for the pride of Muslims. After Turkey in 2002, they are only the second Muslim-dominated country in a World Cup semi-final.
"We wanted to get rid of the inferiority complex in this tournament," said goalkeeper Yassine "Bono" Bounou after defeating Portugal. "We wanted to show that Moroccan players can take on the world." And with them a whole continent. After the complete exhaustion against Spain, in which the Atlas lions defended themselves in a frenzy and passionately tore the possession footballer of the tournament favorites, they had not been given any credit against Portugal. Without Cristiano Ronaldo, they swept Switzerland 6-1 in a frenzy. The old football elite were sure that they would not be beaten. A miracle would save her at most.
"It's no wonder," said 47-year-old Regragui after the game. "Regardless of what people in Europe say now: It's no wonder. If you play with passion, then you can do it. We've made our people proud and we've made our continent proud and so many around it. If you have a Rocky "You see the movie then you want Rocky to win. Because he's the underdog. We're the Rocky Balboa of this World Cup. We're the team that everyone loves in this World Cup because we're proving to the world that you can win without that big talent and big money."
There was Romain Saiss, the team's captain. He had been ailing since the extra time of the game against Spain. The Wolverhampton Wanderers defender dragged his body into the stadium with a heavily bandaged thigh, struggled at half-time and fell to the ground a little later. He couldn't even walk off the pitch. He was carried. There were 57 minutes played. A minute later, Goncalo Ramos, three goals against Switzerland, the new Ronaldo, rose into the air and headed the ball just wide of the post with his first good move of the game.
There was winger Hakim Ziyech. He lasted a little longer than Saiss, then he was down in the middle of a Portuguese attack. Bruno Fernandes chased the ball over the crossbar from the edge of the box. 63 minutes played. Somehow things went on for Ziyech. He saw Bruno Fernandes chasing corner after corner into the Moroccan penalty area, Cristiano Ronaldo desperately looking for space, escaping his opponents but never getting the ball to him. The 37-year-old arrived shortly after half-time. He should turn the game. It was an act of desperation by the Portuguese coach Fernando Santos. The spectators at Al Thumana whistled and booed as loudly as they could. Ronaldo was not a welcome guest.
Ziyech was back in the 78th minute. The doctors who rushed over bandaged his thigh with fabric, but four minutes later it was over. 82 minutes played. The pressure from the Portuguese was maximum, they hardly came to any conclusions. Only Morocco did not even come from their own half. A minute later, Ronaldo put the ball down for Joao Felix, but there was Bono. If something came on goal, if a cross could become dangerous, then keeper Bono threw himself into the ball, grabbed it and buried Portuguese hopes with it. The audience at Al Thumana sang at the top of their lungs and there was always someone on the pitch whipping them.
The Moroccans had been in the lead since the 42nd minute. Yahya Attiat-Allah of Moroccan club Wydad AC replaced injured Bayern star Mazaouri and ran relentlessly from back to front and front to back for the first half. He blocked passes, cleared balls, straddled and kept finding ways behind the Portuguese defence. In the 42nd minute he let a ball fly high into the penalty area. He was in the air for more than a breathless second and yet the Portuguese goalkeeper Diogo Costa managed to misjudge the cross. Youssef En-Nesyri climbed up, higher and higher, stood there and got his head on. After that, no one held back. The red wall exploded even before the bullet hit the net.
But in this 83rd minute, a minute after Ziyech was substituted, that was just a result that had to be defended for a long time. With everything they had left, and it wasn't much, the Moroccans threw themselves into the attacks of the Portuguese, who in turn were becoming more and more desperate. Complained here and there, demanded penalties and went the way of all losers. They unloaded their omissions on the referee. But the Argentinian Facundo Tello put in an excellent performance, just not particularly interested in the orgies of complaints from the Portuguese.
End of regular time, nine minutes of stoppage time left. Suddenly there was Ronaldo and he was in his 196th international match looking for his 119th international goal. But what did Bono care? He blocked the shot. "We have one of the best keepers in the world. And when he saved it, I knew we were invincible," said coach Regraguri, who also shed tears after the yellow-red card for Bari professional Walid Cheddira couldn't rob the end of the game. "It's the first time I've cried after a game," he said. "I wanted to be mentally strong. After all, I'm the coach. But when you reach the semi-finals of a World Cup, the emotions get you." A whole continent cried with him. And then there was celebration.