Riots in Rabat. Celebrations in Casablanca. Tears of joy in Tangier. Morocco has advanced to the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the first time in its long-lived history.
It would not be possible without the Herculean heroics of one Yassine Bounou. The Sevilla stopper kept multiple shots out of the Moroccan net, but it was Spain’s wastefulness that doomed them to extra time. Spain nearly had a goal when Real striker Marco Asensio sent his shot wide one-on-one with Bounou.
But, it’s not to say Morocco was better than their European contemporaries. Athletic Club keeper Unai Simon made a big save in the 32nd minute, shutting down Noussair Mazraoui’s outside-the-box attempt.
It was a relatively quiet first 90 minutes as fatigue got the best of both sides. Expert tackles from both defense were the difference between life and death. A last-ditch lunge from Sofyan Amrabat blocked an excellent attempt from Nico Williams to send the match into extra time.
The extra 30 minutes seemed identical to the 90 minutes that just finished; both sides just could not finish. Morocco continued shredding the Spanish defense with what little possession they had. Angers midfielder Azzedine Ounahi beat several defenders to get to the box, where he laid it off to Bari striker Walid Cheddira. Unfortunately, Cheddira’s weak shot met the grateful palms of Simon, who forced the ball out of danger.
Spain looked like the better team in extra time. Their best opportunity was Pablo Sarabia’s tight volley that clattered against the outside of the post with the last kick of extra time. It was placed near-perfectly, and a few meters could have made Sarabia the hero instead of the eventual villain.
Of course, the high-energy penalty shootout was the highlight of the match.
Morocco uses penalties to book spot in quarterfinals
Sampdoria midfielder Abdelhamid Sabiri rolled the first penalty of the match to the bottom right corner, tricking Simon into the wrong direction. Paris star Pablo Sarabia hit the post for his first-ever penalty miss, giving Morocco a one-goal advantage.
Up stepped Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech. He slammed his penalty right down the middle, leaving Simon surprised and Spain nervous. Then came Carlos Soler. Bounou expertly punished Soler’s weak shot, guessing the right way.
Qatar SC defender Badr Banoune nearly jeapordized Morocco’s chances of running away with a penalty shootout, but Sergio Busquets’ halfhearted penalty attempt that Bounou easily beat away gave Morocco its best chance yet to advance to the quarterfinals.
Achraf Hakimi, the face behind the Moroccan team, the man who near singlehandedly drove the Atlas Lions to the World Cup; stepped up to the penalty spot. He looked firm, composed, confident.
He drives to the penalty spot, hardening his face, leaning back for more power. Simon dives to his left.
But, Hakimi smoothly, softly slots his shot into the center of the net to give Morocco its first knockout win ever. Grinning, he waddles like a penguin towards his ecstatic teammates. The world is Hakimi’s right now, and he knows it.
A first for Morocco
With Morocco’s win, they become the first African nation to advance to the World Cup since Ghana played Uruguay in 2010. A win against a fiery Portugal side would make them the first ever African or Arab nation to make it to the semifinals. Hakimi, manager Walid Regragui, and the Atlas Lions are up for the challenge.
PHOTO: IMAGO / Xinhua
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