Africa finally has a team in thesemi-finals, just like the Arab world. Morocco delivered a watershed moment in the nearly 100-year history of football’s greatest tournament, beating and his Portugal team 1-0 on Saturday in the other shocking result of the first World Cup staged in the Middle East.
As a tearful Ronaldo headed for the tunnel – and possibly international retirement – after the final whistle, the Moroccan players tossed their coach into the air and waved their country’s flag as they linked their arms in front of the celebrating supporters.
“Pinch me, I’m dreaming,” said Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou. “Morocco are ready to face anyone in the world. We have changed the mentality of the generation that comes after us. They will know that Moroccan players can create miracles.”
Youssef En-Nesyri scored the winning goal in the 42nd minute to continue an unlikely run that generated a wave of pride across the Arab world, inspiring displays of Arab identity from supporters in different countries.
Africa is also rejoicing to finally have a nation that progresses to the levels usually achieved only by European or South American teams. Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) all reached the quarter-finals without going any further.
Morocco broke through, setting up a semi-final match against either France or England.
Ronaldo, 37, one of football’s greatest players but now a declining force, did not start for the second game in a row and came on in the 51st minute. He missed his only chance to equalize in stoppage time.
The five-time World Player of the Year is set to end his career without winning the World Cup or ever reaching the final. He left the pitch just after the final whistle, only briefly stopped by two Moroccan players wishing to shake his hand and a spectator who confronted him near the tunnel entrance, and cried as he walked towards locker rooms.
If this is the end of Ronaldo at international level, he will finish with 118 goals – a record in men’s football – and a European league title, but not the biggest prize in football. He only reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2006.
“Our players are distressed,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos, who shrugged off questions about his own future and added he had no regrets not starting Ronaldo. “Cristiano is a great player and he came when we thought it was necessary. But no, no regrets.”
There’s no reason why this Moroccan team – coached by Frenchman Walid Regragui and made up of 14 foreign-born players – can’t go all the way to the title. They topped a group that included second-seeded Belgium and semi-finalists Croatia and have now beaten two of Europe’s heavyweights in Spain – after a penalty shootout in the round of 16 – and Portugal in the quarter-finals of final.
“What is important for future generations is that we have shown that it is possible for an African team to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup. Or even the final, why not?” Regragui told reporters, according to Reuters.
“At a press conference three or four games ago, I was asked if we could win the World Cup. And I said: ‘Why not?’ We can dream. Why shouldn’t we dream? If you don’t dream, you won’t go anywhere. It costs you nothing.
The Moroccan defense have yet to concede a goal from an opposing player at this year’s World Cup – the only one they have allowed was an own goal – and they have stifled a Portugal side who beat Switzerland 6-1 in the last 16 to throw themselves into the favourites.
In a game played to a backdrop of incessant whistles and boos from Morocco’s passionate fans, the team relied almost exclusively on counterattacks and scored on one of them.
A cross was swung in from the left and En-Nesyri jumped between Portuguese goalkeeper Diogo Costa and defender Ruben Dias to head for the empty net.
Ronaldo, who will be 41 by the time the 2026 World Cup takes place in the United States, Mexico and Canada, barely touched the ball until stoppage time when he came in behind the Moroccan defense on a long ball forward. His low shot is saved by Bounou.
“I was afraid he could play,” Regragui said of Ronaldo, “because I know he can score from nothing.”
Substitute Walid Cheddira was shown a red card for Morocco at the start of added time for picking up a second yellow card in as many minutes.
After Portuguese centre-back Pepe headed wide from inside the penalty area six minutes into added time, Ronaldo fell to his knees in dejection.
While Lionel Messi will be in the semi-finals with Argentina, the other great footballer of this generation will not.