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Morocco end Africa’s World Cup wait...how far can they go?

22:59 EAT 06/12/2022
Romain Saiss and Hakim Ziyech of Morocco
The Atlas Lions have ended the continent’s 12-year wait for a World Cup quarter-finalist, now they’ll fancy the title

It’s been 12 long years since Africa boasted a World Cup quarter-finalist, with the continent’s teams trying and failing to emulate Ghana at both the tournaments of 2014 and 2018.

The wait ended on Tuesday, as Morocco became Africa’s fourth ever quarter-finalists as they neutralised Spain during a 0-0 draw before outgunning La Roja on penalties.

It’s a magnificent moment for the Atlas Lions as they register their best ever World Cup performing—eclipsing the 1986 team who were eliminated by Germany in the Last 16—and making up for the failure of 2018, when a talented side fell in the group stage.

On that occasion, their final match ended in a 2-2 draw against Spain, with Iago Aspas netting a stoppage-time equaliser when, in truth, the Atlas Lions deserved the victory.

There was no such late lapse this time around, as Morocco defended stoutly, held their nerve, arguably had the better chances, and eventually saw off Spain on penalties as all three of the European takers missed their spotkicks.

It’s not just a historic moment for the North African nation, who only have one Africa Cup of Nations victory to their name, but also for countries from the region, as they mark the first tournament in the Middle East by becoming the first Arab nation to reach the Last Eight.

It will certainly please Fifa, who saw the 2022 tournament in Qatar as an opportunity to bring football to a new heartland, and Morocco’s triumph has clearly transcended beyond the country itself.

The atmosphere for the victory against Spain was among the most memorable of the tournament, with the Atlas Lions—as well as Tunisia and Saudi Arabia—enjoying immense support during the course of the competition.

Morocco can expect the same volume when they face either Switzerland or Portugal in their quarter-final in Doha on December 10th.

By this point, attention will be turning to Morocco’s prospects during the rest of the tournament, and whether this represents Africa’s best chance ever to go the distance.

They overcame a tricky group with victory over fancied Belgium—ranked second in the world—and by neutralising Croatia—finalists in 2018—and have now seen off Spain, neighbours, and 2010 world champions.

They won’t fear either Switzerland or Portugal, and these two sides are less fearsome prospects than England—Cameroon’s opponents in 1990—or Uruguay, who dumped Ghana out in 2010.

Of course, Morocco will be wary of the toll that extra time took on their team, not to mention injuries to key players—centre-backs Nayef Aguerd and Romain Saiss were both withdrawn in some discomfort—but their results to date fuel optimism that the quarters won’t represent the end of the road for this team.

Furthermore, their defensive record ranks among the best in the tournament—they’ve conceded just once since Walid Regragui took charge—and despite a few nervous moments against Spain, registered another clean sheet on Tuesday.

All of the World Cup-winning teams have enjoyed excellent defensive records, and Morocco can certainly fall back on an awesome defensive unit as they look to break new ground in the tournament.

Players like Hakim Ziyech, Sofiane Boufal and Achraf Hakimi can be relied upon for a moment of magic—giving opponents something to think about going in the other direction—while Youssef En-Nesyri’s double against Canada has fuelled optimism that Morocco have rediscovered a goal threat.

Perhaps there’s a lack of experienced at this rarefied level, but Morocco nonetheless have players with considerable experience in Europe’s major leagues, in the Champions League, will they really be fazed by the challenges to come?

Morocco became Africa’s fourth quarter-finalist ever on Tuesday as they downed Spain…don’t back against them becoming Africa’s best ever World Cup team in the week to come.