Of all the times that the camera panned towards the benched Ronaldo during the World Cup quarterfinal against Morocco, the most poignant came towards the end of the first half. In the 42nd minute, Yahia Attiyat Allah floated a cross towards goal. Youssef En-Nesyri, as if climbing on an invisible ladder, rose head and shoulders above Portugal goalkeeper Diogo Costa and defender Ruben Dias, and hung in the air long enough to direct a header into goal. Watching from the sidelines, Ronaldo raised his eyebrows and let out a low whistle. For the past decade, the Portuguese superstar has been the one defining athleticism on the football field. Faster, higher, stronger.
It was discovered that En-Nesyri had risen 2.78 meters off the ground for the header, 15cm short of Ronaldo’s record mark of 2.93m in 2013. Ronaldo came off the bench in the second half, but this Morocco team, which has slayed giant reputations in Qatar, hung on to the 1-0 lead for dear life. When the final whistle blew, after more than eight minutes of time added on, Moroccans on the pitch, in the dugout, in the stands and around the world erupted into celebration. Within minutes, social media sited was drowned in Morocco’s colours of red and green, with pictures and videos of the players and support staff kneeling down to express gratitude, and then those heart-warming images of Sofiane Boufal dancing on the pitch with his mother.
Even though Morocco, the Atlas Lions, became the first African and Arab country to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, they have garnered fans from well beyond those realms, as they have rolled on from one fairytale win to another in Qatar. “We are becoming a team everyone loves because we are showing what we can achieve,” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said after his team’s win over Portugal. “When you watch Rocky Balboa, you want to support him and we are the Rocky of this World Cup.” Morocco is undoubtedly the underdog story of the tournament. But they are not the only one.
Football looked overrun by politics, greed and corruption more than ever during the Qatar World Cup. Despite of how the tournament plays out, it will remain a moral low in the history of the sport. The World Cup itself, however, has showcased why so many are drawn to the stage. This is where great and unexpected things happen. The one true global sport is also a great leveller. It rates performance, not reputation. It rewards grit, not pedigree. It is where favourites and underdogs, champions and dark horses arrive for a fair shot at glory. The lesser favoured teams have understood, and employed, these virtues of sport to set the stage alight.
An early marker that we were in for a rollercoaster of a tournament was laid by Saudi Arabia, when they defeated Lionel Messi’s Argentina 2-1 in their opening group stage contest. A day later, Japan brought the German machine to a shuddering halt with another 2-1 win. Top-ranked Brazil was stunned 1-0 by Cameroon, Tunisia shocked defending champions France 1-0 and Morocco, ranked 22nd in the world, defeated second-ranked Belgium 2-0. Japan, whose discipline on and off the field has earned them fans and plaudits, defeated Spain 2-1 to top Group E. In an incredibly stacked Group H, South Korea scored in the first minute of stoppage time to beat Portugal 2-1 and sneak into the knockouts.
At the end of one of the most exciting group stages at a World Cup, four-time winners Germany, Belgium and former champions Uruguay bowed out. For the first time in football’s showpiece event, three teams from Asian confederation—Japan, South Korea and Australia—and two teams from Africa—Senegal and Morocco—made it to the knockout stages.
Substance over style
Also in the mix, and flying well under the radar, are Croatia. Even though the Balkan team had reached the final in Russia four years ago, they weren’t one of the top picks before the start of this World Cup. The creative nerve-centre of the team was still Luka Modric, who at 37 wasn’t considered a big enough threat. Mistakenly so.
There is nothing flashy about the Croats; maybe apart from unique red and white chequered jerseys. They made it to the round-of-16 on the back of two goalless draws and one win—over Canada—in the group stages. All too unremarkable. It isn’t until you reach the knockout stages of the tournament, the business end, that you realise and appreciate just how difficult they are to break down. Their experience and sheer hardiness brought high-flying Japan to their knees in their round-of-16 contest. After the match ended 1-1 in extra time, Croatia won the penalty shootout 3-1.
It was much of the same in the quarterfinal, where they thwarted Brazilian brilliance with a positive gameplan and gutsy defending. Brazil, and Neymar, broke out of the shackles for a while in extra-time, when Neymar scoring the first goal of the match after 105+1 minutes after a delectable exchange of quick passes, first with Rodrygo and then Lucas Pacqueta. Though Croatia had missed a golden chance of their own just minutes before, they refused to fade away. They regrouped, came back harder at Brazil in the second half of extra time and scored in the 117th minute. Goalkeeper Dominik Livaković was once again the hero as Croatia won 4-2 on penalties. “We are raised as fighters,” Livaković explained. Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić hailed it as, “one of our greatest wins ever.”
“We’ve shown many, many times that we’re capable to win the game when we're the underdogs," said Croatia defender Borna Sosa. “We will always be to these big countries like France or England or Argentina or Brazil.”
Morocco’s melting pot
A day after Croatia sent Brazil crashing, Morocco scripted the upset of the tournament by knocking out Portugal. Cameroon had reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010, but Morocco became the first African nation to breach that hurdle and enter the final four.
Though it is a monumental win for the continent, Morocco’s success is as much the product of the times. At the 2022 World Cup, a total of 137 players were born outside of the country they are representing. And 14 in Morocco’s squad of 26, more than half, weren’t born in the North African country. Of their leading players, Hakim Ziyech was born in the Netherlands, Achraf Hakimi was born in Madrid and came through the Real Madrid youth set-up, Romain Saïss and Boufal in France, and goalkeeper Yassine Bonou in Canada. Some of them play in European leagues for elite clubs like Chelsea (Ziyech), Bayern Munich (Noussair Mazraoui) and Paris St-Germain (Hakimi).
Head coach Regragui, appointed in August, has not only helped them harness their talents honed in distant lands, but has also given them a sense of belonging and purpose. The masterstroke of inviting their families (sponsored by the Moroccan football federation) to join the team in Qatar only deepened the connection to their homeland. “Everyone thought we were going to be knocked out in the first round,” Regragui said. “We have players in the top clubs and we have a team that can win games at the World Cup and that's what I tried to get through to my players. You don't go to the World Cup to play only three games. The message passed to my team, my country and now the continent.”
Morocco entered the semi-final without conceding a goal from an opposition player – they conceded an own goal against Canada. The team that was nobody’s top pick before the World Cup is now everybody’s favourite.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.