It was evening in Doha, where 44,198 fans’ hearts stopped.

And for all the right reasons.

Youssef En-Nesyri rose above a flailing Ruben Dias and past a helpless Diogo Costa to knock in a historic Morocco goal. Morocco knocked Portugal out of the World Cup and endangered Cristiano Ronaldo’s chances of winning a World Cup. In doing so, the Atlas Lions became the first African team to reach the semifinals of a World Cup.

En-Nesyri found his footing, or heading, in the 44th minute. He looked to latch on to a cross from Yahia Attiyat-Allah. For some reason, young Porto stopper Costa stepped off his line to claim it. En-Nesyri soared above Ruben Dias and gently nodded his attempt into an uncontested goal.

His strike marked a genesis in African football. En-Nesyri helped Morocco become the first-ever African nation to make the semifinals, something only a handful of World Cup sides have even dreamed of doing.

Still, attitudes to Morocco’s chances, despite repeated international victories, are pessimistic. With their semifinals bid intact, what more will it take for Morocco, and Africa at large, to get respect?

The 88-year wait

Recent success from Africa at the World Cup starts, ironically, with Morocco. In 1986, the North Africans broke records and bent minds when they emerged from a “Group of Death” stronger than ever. Yet, African soccer starts with controversy, embarrassment, and, sometimes, triumph.

The relationship between FIFA and African football teams has traditionally been strained. Their woes date deep into the 20th century. An Egypt side that battled to a dysfunctional 1934 World Cup knockout round nearly beat Hungary, but lost 4-2 amidst a refereeing disasterclass.

Africa missed out on qualifying for 24 years due to a myriad of confusing and unfortunate events. Multiple withdrawals before the World Cup, World War 2, and unfair qualifying procedures kept Africans out of the World Cup until 1970. Finally, FIFA allocated a qualifying spot to Africa.

More success and tragedy followed at the 1982 World Cup. Algeria won two games, but still could not qualify. The Disgrace of Gijon, where West Germany and Austria both played for a draw to ensure both had spots in the next round, eliminated Algeria thanks to goal difference. It provoked a rule change from FIFA, but not in time to send Algeria packing.

Cameroon, which qualified alongside Algeria, drew all of its three games. However, it missed out on a spot to the next round because of goal differential.

Things picked up in 1986 with Morocco’s fiery World Cup win. After stalemating both Poland and England, they picked a 3-1 win over Portugal to advance to the round of 16. Although Morocco narrowly lost 1-0 at the death to eventual finalists West Germany, more success would soon follow for Africa at the World Cup.

Africa becomes iconic

Roger Milla. The Cameroonian icon is not only arguably the father of Cameroonian football; but he was the catalyst for Cameroon’s historic 1990 run at the World Cup. When the striker was not parading around the corner flag, he was scoring a lot of goals; four, to be exact.

It was Cameroon that paved the way for teams like Morocco. With a surprising 1-0 win over Maradona’s Argentina, and a 2-1 win against Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania, they were set to become the second-ever African side to reach the knockout rounds: an achievement in itself.

Cameroon aimed for higher. Led by Roger Milla’s brace, they beat Colombia 2-1 to meet England in the quarter-finals. They were mere minutes away from going to the semifinals as well, but a late penalty sent the match to extra time, where Cameroon ended up losing.

With more success and iconic performances came more recognition from FIFA and broadcasters all over the world. Think of Aliou Cisse’s side dancing their way to the quarter-finals in 2002. Or, remember Asamoah Gyan carrying Ghana to the round of 16 in 2006 and the quarterfinals four years later. Despite their modest success, African teams have always made deep, serious runs into the World Cup.

It’s why Morocco not only defeating Belgium in the group stage, but going past Spain and Portugal en route to Africa’s first semifinal appearance ever, signifies a new era of African soccer; one where teams don’t hit a brick wall after a tiny bit of success. With Morocco’s new-found triumph, it’s only bound to replicate soon across Africa.

Can Morocco bring Africa more World Cup glory?

One thing that has set Morocco apart from other African countries is its actual investment of funds. Teams like Ghana and Cameroon are ravaged by internal corruption in how it allocates money.

Morocco, however, has been able to spend its money to look for the future. After relative mediocrity in the 90s and 2000s, Morocco spent a big chunk of its money to building the Mohamed VI Football Academy and the Mohamed VI Football Complex. Nayef Aguerd, a key cog in the Moroccan defense, and Youssef En-Nesyri, the striker who scored the winning goal against Portugal, both came out of the two academies.

Although, at the time, it seemed foolish to spend millions of dollars on a team past its glory days, Morocco proved all of its doubters wrong.

Some nations are following Morocco’s blueprint to success. With the help of FIFA Forward, Tunisia refurbished its training facility by adding a medical complex and a relaxation era with spas and jacuzzis. The same program helped build new soccer pitches for Senegalese and Egyptian youth teams and add new training grounds in Niger and Benin.

Africa should be grateful that they now have at least some of the infrastructure they need to catch up with Europe and South America. But, it needs to take a page out of Morocco’s book. Invest in youth facilities and training grounds to maximize success.

PHOTO: IMAGO / Newspix

Guide to World Cup 2022

Here are some resources to help you get the most out of the biggest event in soccer!
TV Schedule: All the info on where and when to watch every game
The Groups: We breakdown each group and all the teams
The Kits: Check out what every team will be wearing on the field this fall
Predictor: Play out every scenario with our World Cup Predictor
World Cup Bracket: Map out the entire tournament, from the groups to the final