The celebrations in Piccadilly Circus were a long way from Qatar. But then Morocco were a long way from reaching World Cup quarter-finals – until they did, dispossessing Spain, the masters of possession football, in a penalty shootout. The Arab world has a standard bearer at the first Arab World Cup.
Supporters of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia flocked to Morocco’s cause in the biggest upset of the tournament. “Thanks to all the Moroccans all over the world for their support, to all Arab people, to all Muslim people. This win belongs to you,” said the midfielder Sofiane Boufal.
Morocco danced on the pitch with a Palestinian flag – another sign that Middle Eastern politics have been playing out in Qatar without the west paying much attention.
Saudi Arabia beating Argentina was a landmark and Japan defeating Germany and Spain unsettled the old order. But that was all in the group stage. Morocco’s rugged defence has conceded one goal in four games. Spanish over-elaboration wasn’t able to break it down. So the game strayed into a shootout that affirmed Morocco’s role as the Arab world’s envoy.
Their quarter-final place was secured with a Panenka (an audacious soft chip down the middle) from Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi. The bigger names of Spain shrank and took dreadful penalties, despite practising “a thousand times.”
And as Moroccan celebrations spread around the globe the World Cup revived the romance of also-rans knocking out great powers. Morocco failed to qualify for four World Cups from 2002-2014 and went out in the group stage in Russia four years ago. Their manager Walid Regragui took over a divided squad in August but has cultivated unity from players dispersed across the world club game.
The quarter-finals are Croatia vs. Brazil, Netherlands vs. Argentina (both Friday), Morocco vs. Portugal and France vs. England (Saturday).
Morocco are the outliers. Only three of their starting XI were born in Morocco. Hakimi entered the world in Madrid to Moroccan parents and chose their birthplace over his own. His Panenka on Tuesday showed Spain what they’re missing.
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