DOHA (REUTERS) – Morocco wrote World Cup history on Saturday night as the first African and Arab country to reach the tournament’s semi-finals, continuing their surprise run in Qatar with a shock 1-0 victory over the highly fancied Portugal.
Youssef En-Nesyri leapt high in the air to head home the game’s only goal just before half-time at the Al-Thumama Stadium to strike a significant blow against football’s established order and book a semi-final on Wednesday against either England or France, who meet later on Saturday.
The result will be widely celebrated across Africa and the Arabic-speaking Middle East, desperate to see one of their teams in contention for the biggest prize in football.
Morocco had already taken the scalps of Belgium and Spain in this tournament but the win over Portugal is of much greater significance.
It was also one of Morocco’s better performances in Qatar, full of determined defending and canny counters, keeping at bay a collection of world stars despite losing key defender Nayef Aguerd to injury before the match and his back four partner and captain Romain Saiss early in the second half.
Portugal will see it as a missed opportunity against the lowest-ranked side left in the tournament and a disappointing curtain call for the 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.
Morocco, again noisily encouraged by the majority of the 44,198-strong crowd, said they were fatigued after their last-16 success over Spain and immediately went into defensive mode as Portugal attacked from the outset.
A fourth-minute free kick for Portugal from wide on the right was swung into the penalty area, and met by Joao Felix’s diving header, producing a fine save from Yassine Bounou.
But the supply quickly dried up thereafter as Morocco closed the passing lanes and frustrated the Portuguese attackers.
Joao Felix had two more half chances in the first half but Morocco gained in confidence and found a sudden spring in their step, frequently breaking on the counter attack.
Left back Yahya Attiat-Allah made several surging runs down the flank, presenting Selim Amallah with a good chance in the 35th minute, which he was unable to convert.
But seven minutes later, a high ball from the fullback into the Portuguese box was met by a towering header from En-Nesyri, outjumping both goalkeeper Diogo Costa and defender Ruben Dias to hand Morocco the lead.
Portuguese frustration was evident as they swarmed the Argentine referee Facundo Tello at the end of the first half, complaining that several penalty appeals had been turned down.
Morocco came close to a second goal four minutes into the second half as Jawad El Yamiq got a touch to Hakim Ziyech’s in-swinging free kick but Costa was in place this time to block.
Ronaldo’s entry in the 51st minute was met with a loud chorus of jeers, but he did inject a new energy into the Portugal side for whom Goncalo Ramos, the hat-trick hero of their 6-1 win over Switzerland in the previous round, missed with a close-in header in the 58th minute.
Bruno Fernandes hit over the top of the crossbar five minutes later as Portugal threw more into attack and Morocco began to sit deeper. Bounou saved again from Joao Felix with seven minutes left.
Morocco’s Walid Cheddira was sent off in stoppage time after receiving two yellow cards in quick succession.
But his side, to the delight of their raucous support, held out for a famous victory.