January 25, 2023

The joke that circulated when it became clear that Morocco would play against Spain at this stage of the tournament was along the lines of ‘the winner gets Andalusia’.

For years, the North African country has been reclaiming parts of its land that were colonized by Spain, including two towns within its borders that are still Spanish. nation.

They stepped into a war zone: a shrill, piercing blizzard of whistles that lasted as long as Spain held onto the ball, revealing so many times in the process the aimless nature of that possession.

Morocco caused another World Cup upset by knocking Spain out of the World Cup final 16

Morocco caused another World Cup upset by knocking Spain out of the World Cup final 16

An energetic man with the number 91 on the back of his replica of the Atlas Lions crest was literally the bandleader, directing two drummers and a sea of ​​Moroccan fans as they sang, looking anxiously over his shoulder as his side occasionally broke out and threatened.

Enrique, in brown chinos and brilliant white shoes, seemed unimpressed by all this, but he wasn’t the one who had to contend with Moroccans taking it on as if their lives depended on it. As his players were forcefully dispossessed – Achraf Hakimi to 19-year-old Pedri and Hakim Ziyech delivered something equally emphatic to Jordi Alba – you wondered what the ethic was in sending those guys into this.

The challenge called for something dynamic, unexpected and world class, but Spain stuck to the template. They tried and tried, passed and succeeded, but they were as pale as their sky-blue shirts.

The Moroccans went for it as if their lives depended on it as Spain dominated possession

The Moroccans went for it as if their lives depended on it as Spain dominated possession

The warriors on this field were Moroccan and ready for war against the Spaniards

The warriors on this field were Moroccan and ready for war against the Spaniards

When Xavi and Iniesta were at the crossroads of this team with Sergio Busquets, Spain broke the lines and the rules of that template, but the team that those two left behind played in the predetermined straight lines. You don’t win World Cups with that. It can also put you at risk of punishment, which penetrates the Spanish national consciousness in a way that England knows all too well. Spain has exited three consecutive tournaments in this way.

The combatants on this field were all Moroccans. Sofiane Boufali played in the first half with Marcus Llorente on the left flank. Chelsea’s Ziyech, whose recovery by coach Walid Regragui is more than justified. Noussair Mazraoui of Bayern Munich, who thrashed Ferran Torres, an intended outlet on the Spanish right.

And then there was the ruthless Azzedine Ounnahi, a defender at Angers who currently supports France’s Ligue 1. Enrique could only identify him as “the number 8” last night, but he knew what he’d seen. “He didn’t stop running,” Enrique said. “He must be utterly destroyed.”

Not really aesthetically perhaps, but definitely heart. And so it is with this squad: an extraordinary diaspora of players, from the Netherlands, France, Canada and Spain, who have turned into crusaders.

Luis Enrique called on heavy artillery to break down Morocco's defenses but failed

Luis Enrique called on heavy artillery to break down Morocco’s defenses but failed

“We had a lot of problems before this World Cup,” said Regragui, after being applauded in the press conference room on Tuesday evening.

“Some players were born in Europe. Some were born in Morocco. Some guys here in this room asked if we don’t like players from Morocco and why don’t we play with guys born in Morocco?

“But they showed today that everyone – every player – is Moroccan when he plays for Morocco. When they come with their passports, they want to die for their country.’

It certainly looked that way.

Morocco goalkeeper Bono made two saves in the penalty shootout to send Spain off

Morocco goalkeeper Bono made two saves in the penalty shootout to send Spain off

The Spanish players achieved dejected numbers after failing to score a single penalty kick in the shootout

The Spanish players achieved dejected numbers after failing to score a single penalty kick in the shootout

Enrique resigned himself to the shoot-out as he knocked out substitute Nico Williams, the most dynamic Spaniard on the field, just before time. He would have known his opponents would face Yassine Bounou, the 31-year-old whose career has gone from strength to strength since she came to Seville from Girona.

Bounou talked to himself in the moments before the Spanish gunners advanced, evoking motivation for what turned out to be the night of his life.

His three saves left it to Achraf Hakimi to beat the last remaining African country in the tournament.

That’s the 24-year-old full-back who was born in Madrid, doesn’t speak a word of Moroccan Arabic and asked his multilingual coach to translate into Spanish for him following Morocco’s previous win. During all the struggle for a nation, not once did Morocco think that Spain would be so useful.

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