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With a roaring World Cup moment, Morocco rolls to the quarterfinals

Morocco players celebrate Tuesday. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)
7 min

RAYYAN, Qatar — One of those shared experiences both goalless and breathless wound its way through the hours and all the way to thunderous noise Tuesday night, noise that cried out for a Richter scale as it mushroomed from the fan base that leads this World Cup in decibels per capita.

It came from the droves of Moroccans who have traveled here for this first World Cup in the Arab world, and it soundtracked their team’s uncommon mastery of penalty kicks — and of stopping same. Morocco will play in its first World Cup quarterfinal because it followed a 0-0 draw against Spain by knocking in three of its four penalty tries as its Canada-born, Morocco-raised and Spain-based 31-year-old goalkeeper, Yassine Bounou, known to his millions of new friends as Bono, thwarted two Spanish bids, with a third hitting the post.

World Cup bracket and knockout round schedule

His last stop set up Spain-born, Paris-based Moroccan star defender Achraf Hakimi on the cusp of victory, and when Hakimi nudged his penalty kick straight ahead as Spanish goalkeeper Unai Simón flailed to his right, the waiting Moroccan players went charging down the pitch toward Hakimi and Bono with the kind of exhilaration normally reserved for daydreams.

They hugged like mad. They bowed in the sujud posture. They became the fourth African team and the first Arab team ever to reach the World Cup quarterfinals, with the chance to become the first to go further Saturday against Portugal, as Manager Walid Regragui hopes for further noise from “Algerian people, Tunisian people, Arabic people and African people.”

“I’d like to thank all the players,” Bono said, “who have helped us lift and go through this mountainous task. Great effort. Great effort. I applaud them, and I give this joy to the Moroccan people.”

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“If you told me at the beginning of the tournament we are going to play against these top teams without losing a match and without giving away a goal, I would have signed straightaway,” said Regragui, his team having drawn with Croatia and beaten Belgium, Canada and Spain.

Spain, which knows its way to the backs of nets, never did find its way there, another accomplishment for the hard, hard Moroccan defense. The lone goal any side has mustered in any match with Morocco went to Canada, and it doubled as the lone own goal of the whole tournament, so you might just construe it as an act of generosity. The entire Moroccan effort has burned with what Regragui called “the determination to avoid losing.”

“For a country like ours,” he said, “the adrenaline and the pressure is so intensive. Of course you want to go down in the history books, but that takes up a lot of energy.”

Morocco fans filled the streets of Doha, Qatar, with cheers and flares after their World Cup victory over Spain on Dec. 6. (Video: Reuters)

Previously: Morocco seizes its World Cup moment with a loud upset of Belgium

Thereby did a country that hadn’t seen a World Cup knockout stage since 1986, when its beloved upstarts of yore played matches in the fervent futbol Mexican burgs of Guadalajara and Monterrey, slide past a Spain squad that had 76 percent of the possession and whose World Cup title in 2010 highlights its frequenting of said knockout stages.

“We realized we weren’t going to have a lot of possession,” Regragui said, and so, “We were humble enough to say, ‘We aren’t France, England or Germany, so we don’t have as much possession as them,’ ” and so, “If we were going to do it that way, we were going to have to be extremely well-organized.”

So they were in a neighborhood tussle played away from the neighborhood, between countries with 11½ miles of noncontiguous border, vying so that one side might brag while boating through the Strait of Gibraltar. Some 44,667 shoehorned in to watch — seemingly 44,666 Moroccans, judging by their songs all along and their jeers during long Spanish possessions, an atmosphere even Spain Manager Luis Enrique found “beautiful.”

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Things went tensely and tautly, the goals all but walled. The Moroccan defenders often looked as if there were 15 of them. Enrique wound up gobsmacked by 22-year-old Moroccan Azzedine Ounahi, who plays in France: “This number eight doesn’t stop running; he must be [exhausted].” There came long stretches of Spanish possession around midfield that looked pretty but didn’t penetrate, the passing impressive but also at times seemingly unrelated to the idea of attacking the net over there. Morocco had some hopeful counterattacks.

Finally, Spain, which also went out in the round of 16 in 2018, closed down the whole fatigue factory in the 123rd minute when Pablo Sarabia, who had come on in the 118th for the purpose of taking penalties, got two mild chances in regular play. The first wound up cleared by Jawad El Yamiq and briefly looked as though it might end up an own goal, which would have epitomized fate’s capacity for cruelty. The second ached more as Sarabia fielded it low on the right, then sent a shot across with a tough angle that glanced barely off the post on the other side. Enrique wound up second-guessing himself for not giving more minutes to Sarabia, a 30-year-old who plays for French power Paris Saint-Germain.

Penalties came as they long seemed they would. Morocco started. Abdelhamid Sabiri, a substitute, shoved his to the right and in with no fuss as Simón slid the other way. Sarabia stepped up for Spain and smacked into the post.

Hakim Ziyech, a Netherlands-born, London-based star on this cosmo Moroccan team, knocked his straight ahead as Simón went left, making it 2-0 in the penalties. Carlos Soler, a Spanish substitute, saw Bono inch left, knocked his kick to the right and promptly saw Bono lurch back left to corral it. That took things to the edge of dire for Spain.

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“I don’t know,” Bono said of penalties. “There’s a little bit of feeling and a little bit of luck. There’s not much you can really say about it. You know how penalties are. It’s just one of those things.”

On came Morocco’s Badr Benoun, who hit a weak one Simón collected in his gut, keeping things at 2-0. Then came 34-year-old Sergio Busquets, the last player left from Spain’s 2010 apex, when it won the World Cup and fielded one of the best national teams ever, a generation that has given way to a set of pups whose better chances surely lie ahead.

Busquets pulled his kick left as Bono dived squarely right — right smack into it. “If we had another penalty,” Enrique joshed, “I would substitute Bono, their goalkeeper.”

It still stood 2-0, with Morocco on the verge of something big and something else. Hakimi eased his shot ahead, a technique known as a Panenka, and then he turned and did a modest dance and smiled like mad and waited for his charging mates. “Today,” Regragui said, “I think it showed to the world that every Moroccan is Moroccan with his passport. When you come to the national team, you want to die. You want to fight.”

Three Spanish players would have the tiny consolation of company for their misery. Twenty-six Moroccan players would have celebrated lives up ahead. “As time goes on,” Bono said, “maybe we can realize what we have achieved” — and the noise indicated they would have so many voices to help with that.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.