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Morocco reaches the semi-finals of the World Cup and overtakes Portugal and Ronaldo

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Doha, Qatar — Africa finally has a team in the semi-finals of the World Cup, just like the Arab world.

Morocco delivered a defining moment in the nearly 100-year history of football’s greatest tournament, beating Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal side 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 will follow 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 in distress,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos, who ignored questions about his own future and added he had no regrets about 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.

“Why wouldn’t we dream of winning the World Cup? Regragi said. “If you don’t dream, you won’t go anywhere. It costs you nothing to dream.

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.

INJURIES

Morocco may have to manage without their two starting centre-backs in the semi-finals. Nayef Aguerd missed the game against Portugal with a thigh injury and Morocco captain Romain Saiss was carried on a stretcher with a suspected left hamstring injury. Another key member of the defence, left-back Noussair Mazraoui, was out through illness while Regragui said right-back Achraf Hakimi was playing through an injury.

RONALDO

Cristiano Ronaldo has failed to score in the knockout stage of any of the five World Cups he has played in. He scored eight goals in the group stage.

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Steve Douglas is on https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports



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