Morocco into the World Cup semi-finals as the Atlas Lions make history against Portugal

When the final whistle was blown on Saturday, the all of Morocco couldn’t believe their eyes – the Atlas Lions into a World Cup semi final, an unprecedented spot for an African side to hold.

The North African nation have only conceded one goal in the entire tournament so far, going toe-to-toe with the likes of Belgium, Spain and Portugal and ultimately reigning supreme. The next task of France in the semi-final might well be one hurdle too many, but with players such as Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech standing out and deemed ‘elite’ by Morocco head coach Walid Regragui, Les Bleus could well be unsettled in a contest that will be anything but a foregone conclusion.

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This isn’t the first time an African nation has taken a World Cup by storm, Ghana in 2010 were spearheaded by an in-prime Asamoah Gyan and featured names such as Kevin-Prince Boateng. They made the World Cup Quarter Finals in South Africa, Luis Suarez’s cruel handball off the line turning the tie in Uruguay’s favour who eventually went through on penalties. Cameroon have also looked confident on the International Stage in the past, making it all the way to Quarter Finals at Italia 1990 before England secured a narrow 3-2 win courtesy of two Gary Lineker spot-kicks.

Morocco have defied the usual stumbling for African sides on the biggest stage therefore, overcoming the heavily-fancied Portugal means all of Regragui’s men are history-makers. They haven’t lucked out either, they warrant the opportunity to make it to a World Cup final.

Qatar 2022 has thrown up a whole host of surprise results and nations unsettling the status quo, the biggest example of this came in one of the opening matches in Group C – Saudi Arabia pulling off an almighty shock in beating a Lionel Messi led Argentina 2-1. Canada showed off the potential of the underdog throughout their short stay in Qatar too, featuring in Morocco’s group and making it tricky for Belgium, Croatia and the aforementioned Atlas Lions.

The Atlas Lions might well have even taken inspiration from Japan’s exploits in the Middle East, a quick-fire double from Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka giving the Samurai Blue a famous 2-1 win over Spain. That victory was secured despite Japan only managing 228 passes all game to Spain’s 1058, The Samurai Blue lethal against Luis Enquire’s pass-heavy Spaniards.

Less about the other underdogs in Qatar, Morocco’s journey to an unprecedented semi-final is the most impressive success story from a World Cup originally dismissed by the neutral. Now, even with the contentious decision to host the World Cup in a morally dubious nation lingering, success stories like Morocco’s remind us of the joy of football.

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The Atlas Lions had a tough task on paper to get out of their group, Belgium and Croatia expected to stroll into the Last 16. Morocco’s defensive resilience ensured their opener against Croatia was fiercely competitive if a little drab, a 0-0 draw favouring the North African underdogs more than the Croats on the day. Yassine Bonou was crucial in the Qatar sunshine during that Group F opener, stretching a leg out to deny former Everton man Nikola Vlasic among many other interventions.

That goalless draw gave Morocco a solid foundation for their pivotal second group game against Belgium, the game that saw Morocco announce themselves as a threat in Qatar. The solid defensive show returned, but this time, the firepower up top was apparent. Wearing their changed strip of all-white at the Al Thumama Stadium, the match was hanging in the balance – Eden Hazard coming close for the Red Devils, Soufane Boufal equally testing Courtois in the Belgium net but the Angers man curled wide. It looked to be another stalemate, a commendable result and performance against a Nation boasting the likes of Kevin De Bruyne.

An ingenious free-kick from substitute Abdelhamid Sabiri broke the deadlock, Morocco’s number 11 unexpectedly directing the free-kick at goal with defender Roman Saiss getting the faintest touch to score. Deep into injury time, Morocco got another. Sublime trickery from Hakim Ziyech – a hit-and-miss player for Chelsea – teed up Zakari Aboukhal to finish past Courtois emphatically. 2-0 on the night – Ziyech a star for the Atlas Lions, his unmemorable spell with Chelsea to date forgotten. Now, he was revelling in the moment with his Moroccan teammates – the players, substitutes, manager and fans barely able to contain their celebrations come full-time.

They’d eventually top Group F, a remarkable feat which saw Roberto Martinez lose his job as Belgium head coach. They weren’t done there though, knocking out Spain on penalties in the last 16 with Achraf Hakimi – a Madrid born man now proudly representing the Atlas Lions – scoring the decisive spot-kick. The penalty epitomised Morocco’s tournament to date – not phased by any pressure whatsoever, a dinked penalty straight down the middle.

The latest win on this mad journey saw Morocco’s resolve tested to the max, a late first half En-Nesyri header giving Morocco the narrowest of leads against Portugal. From then on, the Atlas Lions were subject to wave after wave of pressure – Bruno Fernandes clattering the crossbar moments after En-Nesyri bundled in the opener. Yassine Bonou was heroic in net once more, tipping over a strong Joao Felix effort with the clock at 82 minutes. Those final few exchanges in Doha must’ve felt like an eternity for those with allegiances to Morocco, stoppage time even saw a Morocco man dismissed for a second yellow.

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With a minute left in proceedings, Pepe nodded wide from a cross into the area – the no-nonsense defender inaccurate with his effort, a Morocco player kissing his forehead to bless the former Porto man’s squandered chance. The whistle was then blown, Morocco making history by being the first African nation to reach a World Cup semi-final. Now, it’s the small task of reigning World Champions France in the semi-finals.

After beating both Spain and Portugal one after the other in the knock-outs, Morocco won’t necessarily fear France. Moreover, France haven’t been without their flaws so far in the Middle East – losing their final group stage match 1-0 to Tunisia, Kylian Mbappe and co were also unconvincing against England to secure this Morocco semi-final clash. Still, it could well be a step too far for the Atlas Lions.

Even if they do lose to France, Morocco have put Africa on the map on the biggest stage. It shows to the World that Africa aren’t a lesser continent when it comes to football, they can battle with the best and come out on top. Prior to Qatar 2022, Kalidou Koulibaly of Senegal and Chelsea notoriety wanted African nations to ‘set higher goals.’ By getting to a World Cup semi-final, it’s safe to say Morocco have eclipsed all expectations.

The Author

Kelan Sarson

Peterborough United supporter, football writer + current MA Journalism student at the Uni of Sheffield. Twitter account for football writing - @sarsonkelan

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