DOHA ( Associated Press) — In a highly volatile World Cup, Africa advanced a team to the semifinals for the first time as Morocco sent Portugal home and snuffed out perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance at a title.
Youssef En-Nesri was suspended in the air to score in the 42nd minute, sealing a 1-0 win on Saturday and continuing Morocco’s astonishing run at the first World Cup in the Middle East.
As Cristiano made his way to the locker room in tears after the final whistle of the quarter-final clash, Moroccan players held their coach Walid Regargui on the pitch at the Al Thumama Stadium.
Moroccan goalkeeper Yassin Bounou said, “Pinch me, I’m dreaming.” Morocco is ready to face anyone. We have changed the mindset for the generation that will follow us. They know Moroccan players can do wonders.”
Morocco will face France to reach the final of the tournament in Qatar. In the second hour, the defending champions beat England 2–1.
This is a great achievement for African football. The World Cup semi-finals are a scenario of almost exclusive participation for teams from Europe and South America. Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) made the quarter-finals but failed to progress.
Morocco overcame the barrier with a squad containing 14 players born outside its borders. A team that only three months ago had the audacity to change coach by appointing Regaragui, another member of the North African nation’s diaspora.
“Why can’t we dream of winning the World Cup?” Regargui said. “If you don’t dream, you’re going nowhere. There’s no cost to dreaming.”
Since their first game in Qatar, the Atlas Lions have been an impenetrable wall. He has barely conceded a goal this World Cup – a goal against Canada at the end of the group stage – and handcuffed a Portugal that thrashed Switzerland 6-1 in the previous round.
What is more commendable is that Morocco maintained their mettle in the back half despite losing three of their starters to injury. They took to the pitch without right-back Nussair Mazrouei and centre-back Nayef Aguard. And a third, captain and centre-back Romain Sais, had to be taken off on a stretcher shortly before the end of the hour.
“My teammates have been impressive. We have come forward with injured players.”
In a stadium packed with Moroccan fans, the match proceedings were marked by counterattacking acts.
And that’s exactly how the Moroccan goal fell.
From a cross from the left, An-Nesri rose to finish at will between Portuguese goalkeeper Diogo Costa – the hero of a very poor start – and defender Ruben Dias.
Morocco had beaten Spain on the road and won a group that included Belgium and Croatia, which they repeated as semi-finalists in Qatar.
For the second consecutive game in the fifth World Cup of his extraordinary career, Cristiano was relegated to the substitutes’ bench by a decision of coach Fernando Santos.
He entered in the 51st minute for Ruben Neves. But at all times the spirit at the Al Thumama Stadium was a lost cause. Time and again, the Portuguese team could not find the clarity to penetrate the granite defensive structures of Morocco.
“I was afraid they would put him in to play. He can score for you from anywhere,” Regargui said.
At 37 years old and in apparent decline, Cristiano sees the end of his career without having won the World Cup or even played in the final of soccer’s top event.
Cristiano will be 41 in 2026, when the United States, Canada and Mexico co-host the next tournament.
The captain tried till the end, but nothing more. It wasn’t until extra time that he found a spot after receiving a through ball, but goalkeeper Yasin Bouno knew how to control his low shot. Cristiano got down on his knees and despaired.
While Lionel Messi – his nemesis for two decades – will face Argentina in the semi-finals, another star of his generation will be on the sidelines.
With the final whistle, Cristiano went straight to the locker room – probably the last time he did so at the World Cup. He was seen crying. Some Moroccan players tried to console him and received a slap from Santos. His Portuguese team-mates had moved to the part of the stands where they had gathered to thank the fans.
He started the tournament by becoming the first man to score in five different World Cups. He can claim his 118 goals for Portugal, a record for the national men’s football. As well as from the European Championship won in 2016. But the most he had in the World Cup was a semi-finalist in 2006.
“My players are devastated,” said Santos, who did not want to talk about his continuation as Portugal’s coach and said he regretted not sitting down for one of the best football players of all time.
“Cristiano is a fantastic player and he came when I thought it was necessary. But no, no regrets.