How Morocco Beat Portugal – The New York Times

DOHA, Qatar — Another step for Morocco, another step for the Arab world, another push to a new frontier for the Middle East. Morocco’s reputation-shredding journey through the World Cup has now felled another European giant.

After sending Arabs across the world into a state of ecstasy that it had previously never experienced by reaching the quarterfinals of the World Cup, Morocco’s soccer team did itself one better. In a display of defensive grit and no little attacking verve, the Moroccans beat Portugal, 1-0, to become the first African team to reach the semifinals of soccer’s biggest championship, and continue its thrilling joyride through Qatar.

Having never previously been in contention for soccer’s biggest prize, Morocco is now just one game from a place in the final, having seen off Belgium, Spain and now Portugal, thanks 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.

Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in Qatar as one of the most famous men on the planet, one of the best players to play soccer in any era. But he also arrived as an awkward tourist, having burned his bridges and been dumped by Manchester United. He found his place in Portugal’s starting lineup, a position that he had gripped for nearly two decades, 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 with a stunning hat trick against Switzerland, producing the credentials that immediately installed the Benfica forward as an heir apparent.

But against Morocco, with an iron-willed defense that has still only been breached once in this World Cup, Ramos and the Portuguese wilted as the wall of whistles reached fever pitch and stayed there. Ronaldo entered the stage with 40 minutes left to go, a platform to produce one more heroic act, a final cinematic moment in a career filled with cinematic moments.

At the point of an attack that featured a line of four forwards in increasingly desperate attempts to break Moroccan resistance with 20 minutes to go, Ronaldo could not produce a rescue act. He ran, he chased balls in behind, he leaped to try and get his head to balls, he tried to find shooting angles, everything and anything to break the redshirted line of Moroccan resistance.

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.

En-Nesyri, an injury doubt before the game, timed his run to perfection, meeting defender Yahia Attiyat Allah’s high-hanging cross just before goalkeeper Diogo Costa could get his hand on it.

Portugal almost immediately replied with what would have been a contender for goal of the tournament as Bruno Fernandes’s half-volley from the tightest of angles came crashing back off the bar.

And that, despite wave after wave of 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.

With just injury time remaining, Morocco was reduced to 10 players when Walid Cheddira, a substitute, was sent off, collecting two yellow cards in quick succession as the game morphed into something that resembled soccer. Attack and defense, players threw themselves on the line.

Finally the whistles from the stands stopped. Portugal’s players sank to their knees, Ronaldo was off down the tunnel, brought to tears. Morocco, swept up by the bedlam, summoned one final reserve of energy to embark in celebrations that will live long in the memory.

While one hero departs the sport’s biggest stage, the World Cup has given birth to a team of heroes for the Arab world. Morocco is not yet ready to say goodbye.