IT was exhibition football from Portugal as they became the last team to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup with their trouncing of Switzerland, but there was no doubt about who the coolest man in Qatar was on Tuesday night.
Even Kylian Mbappe — yet again, four years on from Russia, the dazzling star of the World Cup — tweeted for the “Moroccan King”.
His Paris St Germain teammate Achraf Hakimi wasn’t just the toast of Morocco but the whole region as well; his breathtaking ‘Panenka’ penalty with the eyes of the whole world on him ensured there was an Arab team in the last eight of the first World Cup in the Arab world.
Morocco’s victory also meant that after a group stage for the underdogs and after the heavyweights of world football had largely reasserted themselves in the round of 16, there was at least one outlier; a team that will provide fans of the region something to cheer about as the World Cup reached the sharp end.
It’s not that Morocco don’t have thousands of fans of their own. The Royal Moroccan Football Federation distributed 10,000 tickets for the last-16 game to fans who could show the country’s passport. Just like after matches featuring Saudi Arabia, who notably stunned Argentina in the group stage, the alleyways and the cobbled streets of Souq Waqif, the traditional market with cafes and restaurants was brimming with fans in Moroccan colours.
It was a massive celebration. “But today we’re not having Shisha [Hookah] because we’ve been screaming like crazy and our throats are down,” Toufek, a Moroccan fan, told Dawn hours after seeing his side prevail over Spain 3-0 in a penalty shootout after a goalless draw at the Education City Stadium. “Our victory has united the Arab fans, we have Algerians, Egyptians, Saudis and Qataris all celebrating our win. We’re all brothers with a common cause.”
For Spain, the defeat marked a second successive last-16 exit at the World Cup. Just like Germany discovered in the group stage, past triumphs count for nothing as teams from Africa and Asia have narrowed the gap.
This is the new world order and no one is taking these sides for granted anymore.
“We have a tough game against Morocco and we need to prepare for it,” Portugal’s Bernardo Silva told Dawn after their 6-1 win at the Lusail Stadium, one which came without much contribution from the metronomic Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo’s story is one of several plots in this incredible World Cup. In his last chance to win it, it’s likely that he will have to make do with a bit-part role. Age has caught up with him. It’s the same with his long-time nemesis Lionel Messi, who is also looking to add the World Cup to the long list of titles he’s won.
Unlike Ronaldo, though, Messi remains the heartbeat for Argentina; his goal setting up their 2-1 win over Australia. Up next for them are a Netherlands side looking to deliver a first World Cup for their nation as well as the cancer-stricken Louis van Gaal, who is in his last tournament as coach.
“In the quarter-finals, you are three games away from glory and we want to cash in on the opportunity at hand,” Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk told a news conference on Wednesday.
If Argentina advance, they could potentially face Brazil in a tantalising semi-final. The Brazilians, playing under the shadow of the legendary Pele being hospitalised, turned on the style in their 4-1 romp over South Korea to set up a quarter-final against Croatia, who ended the hopes of Japan in the only other penalty shootout of the last-16 stage.
With the big boys turning up in the first knockout round, France, with Mbappe showing his spectacular ability, and England dispatched Poland and Senegal respectively to set up a clash for the semi-final berth. If France advance, Mbappe will come face to face with Hakimi if Morocco can continue their impressive run in Qatar.
But on Wednesday, the first rest day of the tournament after 16 days of non-stop action, Morocco were the only team in the last eight that opted to rest while the others continued on with their training sessions. As far as their fans are concerned, they are having a ball in Qatar.
They never expected their side to come this far. But here they are, with more history beckoning if they reach the final four. Go through, and they will become the first African or Arab team to have made it that far at a World Cup.
Cover photo: Morocco players celebrate after winning a penalty shootout with Spain at the FIFA World Cup in Al Rayyan, Qatar, on Tuesday. — AFP