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DOHA, Qatar — The first World Cup in the Arab world began with a shock, Saudi Arabia upsetting Argentina in a first-round game, setting off waves of jubilation in a region lacking in soccer giants.
The tournament in Qatar is reaching its final stages with another stunner: Morocco upset Portugal on Saturday to become the first country in Africa and the Arab world to ever reach the semifinals.
Supporters who packed cafes in Rabat poured into the streets after the final whistle of the game. Cries of joy, horns and fireworks kicked off a party, worthy of a World Cup final, that spread through the Moroccan capital.
Hundreds of families — women, men and children — sang, danced and played instruments in a sea of red and green, the colors of the Moroccan flag. Many more people gathered in front of the parliament building, blocking traffic, and greeting each other with “mabrouk alina” (congratulations to us).
Morocco added Portugal — and its superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo — to the list of major European nations it has unexpectedly dumped out of the Cup. Having never previously been in contention for soccer’s biggest prize, Morocco is just one game from a place in the final, after dispatching the likes of Belgium, Spain and now Portugal without allowing them a single goal.
“Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming,” Yassine Bounou, the Morocco goalkeeper known as Bono, said after the game. “These moments are great, but we’re here to change the mentality. With this feeling of inferiority, we have to get rid of it. The Moroccan player can face any in the world. The generation coming after us will know we can create miracles.”
Players from Africa and the Arab world have long played in soccer’s upper-tier leagues in Europe and elsewhere, and like many athletes who hold citizenship in more than one place, many are playing on teams other than the one where they were born. But national teams in Africa have struggled to make a mark late in the tournament until now.
Morocco’s Youssef En-Nesyri hit a header to score the winning goal against Portugal.Credit…Martin Meissner/Associated Press
Of Morocco’s 26-member team, just 12 were born in Morocco, the lowest ratio in the competition, according to a tally by FIFA. The others are of Moroccan heritage but born in Spain, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Other teams in Africa have also lured players with familial if not residential ties to their teams.
Still, Morocco’s storybook run has millions of Arabs, Muslims and North Africans coalescing behind a single team in a way that this tournament has not seen.
That fanatical support was in full display inside the Al Thumama Stadium, which for 90 minutes (plus eight minutes of heart-stopping injury time) resembled a corner of Casablanca, Rabat or Marrakesh. Every period of Portuguese possession was met with ear-piercing whistles, and every Moroccan incursion the other way greeted with the type of boisterous cheering that threatened to pull the ball into the Portuguese net.
The next step of Morocco’s magical journey will come against France in a semifinal game Wednesday, setting the former colony against its former colonizer. But as Morocco celebrated Saturday’s victory, the result almost certainly meant the end of another era.
Ronaldo arrived in Qatar as one of the most famous people in the world, one of the best players to play soccer in any era. But at age 37, he arrived almost as an awkward tourist. He no longer played for a professional club, having been dumped by Manchester United. And his position in Portugal’s starting lineup, which he had gripped for nearly two decades, was tenuous. By the time Portugal reached the round of 16, he had lost it.
Against Switzerland, Ronaldo watched as his young replacement, Gonçalo Ramos, announced himself as an heir apparent, scoring a stunning three goals.
But against Morocco’s iron-willed defense, Ramos and the Portuguese wilted as the wall of whistles reached fever pitch and stayed there. Ronaldo entered the stage with 40 minutes left, a platform to produce one more heroic act, a final cinematic moment in a career filled with cinematic moments.
At the point of an attack that featured a line of four forwards in ever more desperate attempts to break Moroccan resistance, Ronaldo could not bend the World Cup to his will. He ran, he chased balls in behind, he leaped to get his head to balls, he tried to find shooting angles, everything and anything to break the redshirted Moroccan barrier.
So did his teammates. But nothing worked. Shots were blocked, tackles were made as Moroccan numbers seemingly multiplied in the face of incessant waves of Portuguese attacks.
Credit…Martin Meissner/Associated Press
Portugal simply could not get the ball to break for it. But in one first-half moment, Morocco did. In the 42nd minute, Yahia Attiyat Allah sent a hopeful crossing pass in front of the Portuguese goal. The ball hung in the air for what seemed like an age, before the tall striker Youssef En-Nesyri, timing his run to perfection, headed it in a fraction of a second before the goalkeeper Diogo Costa could get his hand on it.
It was in the aftermath of that goal when Morocco let its guard down for the only time in the game, allowing the ball to ricochet dangerously close to its goal. Portugal almost tied the game in that moment, with midfielder Bruno Fernandes hitting a strike from an improbable angle that came crashing off the bar.
That was as close as Morocco would let Portugal get.
By the final minutes of the game, Morocco was reduced to 10 men with the substitute Walid Cheddira collecting two yellow cards in quick succession. But Morocco refused to be distracted. The final seconds were a blur played against the sound of whistling that threatened to make ears bleed. And then, came the whistle that mattered.
While his teammates sank to their knees, Ronaldo brushed aside the good wishes of two Moroccan players and headed straight toward the tunnel, wiping away tears with his jersey. Morocco, swept up by the bedlam, summoned one final reserve of energy to embark on celebrations that will live long in memory. The team charged toward its fans massed behind the goal that refused to be breached, lifting their arms into the air, milking a moment that only the most optimistic member of its squad could have deemed possible when the journey began last month.
While one hero departs soccer’s biggest stage, the World Cup has given birth to a team of heroes for the Arab world. Morocco is not ready to say goodbye.
In Rabat, the party continued through the night. “I am happy and proud to see men and women shoulder to shoulder supporting and lifting the national team,” said Loubna Taleb, 34, a political advisor at an embassy in the capital. “They have exceeded all expectations and made all of us believe in more than football.”
She added, “Every Moroccan feels invincible and capable of doing and succeeding in anything even against the odds. And for that I am eternally grateful to them for healing a nation from colonial scars.”
Aida Alami contributed reporting from Rabat, Morocco.