AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) – The first World Cup held in an Arab country has produced the first quarter-finalist in the Arab world.
Morocco became just the fourth African country to reach the quarter-finals of the world’s biggest football tournament, defeating Spain 3-0 on penalties after a 0-0 draw in extra time.
The Moroccans were playing in just their second knockout game at a World Cup, an event being held in the Middle East for the first time in its nearly 100-year history.
“Right now is a special moment for all of Africa, for all Arab countries, for all Muslims around the world,” said Moroccan midfielder Azzedine Ounahi. “You try to make them happy, try to make us happy. And I think it’s going quite well.”
The World Cup in Qatar is the first to be held in the Arab world and only the second to be held in Asia. The tournament began with one of the biggest upsets in history when Saudi Arabia defeated two-time world champions Argentina on Matchday 3.
The Saudis were eliminated in the group stage, along with hosts Qatar and Tunisia. Morocco thus remained the standard-bearer of the Arab world.
“I’m very proud of my fans, my people and the Arabs,” said Moroccan coach Walid Regragui, who became the first African to lead an African team to the quarter-finals. “Also because I think you have Qataris here, maybe Algerians, Tunisians, Arabs and Africans.”
Achraf Hakimi, who was born in Madrid and previously played for Real Madrid, converted the winning penalty in a penalty shoot-out. Abdelhamid Sabiri and Hakim Ziyech, who returned to the national team after a dispute with the previous coach, also scored.
Morocco were the biggest surprise of the tournament and next they meet Portugal in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
Morocco, which has a complex geopolitical relationship with close neighbor Spain, emerged from a difficult group that included Canada, Belgium, the 2018 semi-finalists, and Croatia, the 2018 runners-up.
The team came to the tournament with more than half of their squad filled with players not born in Morocco, the most from all 32 participating countries.
“Today I think it showed the world that every Moroccan with his passport is Moroccan,” Regragui said. “If he gets into the national team you want to die, you want to fight. And I want to show that. And now we have an example. The coach was born in France but no one can have my heart except my country.”
The King of Morocco called to congratulate the team after the game.
Morocco, who also reached the round of 16 at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, are also the only team from outside Europe or South America to make the last eight in Qatar.
Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana are the only other African nations to reach the World Cup quarterfinals. None of the three reached the semifinals.
Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, who plays for Spanish club Sevilla, saved two of the three penalties he faced in the penalty shoot-out from Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets. Pablo Sarabia hit the post.
“We knew that if we went to penalties we had one of the best goalkeepers in the world and we could win it,” said Regragui, who took over as Morocco coach in August and had little time to prepare the side for the future WM.
Sarabia had come on in the final minutes of extra time, apparently for penalties. He replaced Nico Williams, who had also been substituted on early in the game.
“It’s my responsibility,” said Spain coach Luis Enrique, who said before the game he had asked his players to practice 1,000 penalties at their clubs. “I chose the first three penalty takers, who could then decide for themselves. But the first three were my choice and I would have done it again. The only thing I wished for was to knock out Bounou and put another goalie there.
Spain were eliminated on penalties by hosts Russia at the 2018 World Cup and by Italy in the semi-finals of last year’s European Championship. Since winning the tournament in South Africa in 2010, the team has not progressed past the round of 16 at the World Cup.
“We couldn’t score…no matter how much we say we deserved the win for the chances we created and for playing more in their area, it won’t change anything,” said the Spain goalkeeper Unai Simón saved a penalty in a penalty shootout. “The only thing left for us is to accept that we were eliminated.”
It was the fifth time in a row that Spain had gone into overtime in a knockout round of a major tournament. The team played 120 minutes against Russia and in all three knockout games at Euro 2020.
The Moroccan fans were significantly outnumbered – and louder than – the Spaniards at Education City Stadium.
It was the second round of 16 game that went into overtime at this year’s World Cup. Croatia defeated Japan on penalties on Monday.
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