And with that, the quarter-finals games are ready to go. How did the final two matches of the initial knockout round compare to the others? Let’s take a look!
Morocco vs. Spain
With no goals during regular or extra time, Morocco ultimately outperformed itself and eliminated the World Cup powerhouses.
The noise had been increasing for two hours. It had begun at relentless and progressed past ear-splitting and head-spinning before settling at a volume that was above deafening. The tens of thousands of Moroccan fans inside the Education City Stadium on Tuesday seemed to be less of a source of the relentless, percussive roar than the concrete and steel itself.
Achraf Hakimi entered that wall of sound with his head bent, as if the entire cacophony and strain were pressing in on him. He would take the penalty, which could advance Morocco to its first World Cup quarterfinal and terminate Spain’s stay in Qatar, eliminating one of the tournament favorites.
Another octave of noise was produced. One more bar of pressure was lost. Then, just as wild pandemonium was about to break out, Hakimi—who was born in Spain, raised in Spain, and may have played for Spain—stepped forward and, with a light, deft touch of the ball, barely more than a brush of silk, gently stroked his penalty past Unai Simón.
Morocco’s players ran to Hakimi on the pitch, forgetting all of their weariness and fatigue from the long, difficult evening. Moroccan spectators crowded around one another, urgently reaching out to the players in thanks, excitement, and shock.
The Moroccan team had, in the words of striker Walid Cheddira, “accomplished something monumental” for the nation. Not only had Morocco never advanced past the round of 16 in a World Cup, but neither had any other North African or Arab nation. And now, at the first Arab World Cup, it has shattered that ceiling.
One of the most noticeable features of the opening few weeks of this tournament in Qatar has been the sense of unity among all of the teams from what is generally, and a little impolitely, dubbed the “Arab world.”
It goes beyond the manufactured political gestures performed for diplomatic purposes in the VIP sections of the stadiums, such as the emir of Qatar sitting next to Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, during the first game and donning a Saudi Arabian scarf a few days later.
Saudi Arabia’s surprising victory over Argentina sparked genuine jubilation not just in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, but also in Cairo, Amman, and Beirut. Tunisian fans in Doha hailed Morocco’s group phase victories with sincere glee, and vice versa.
Since a large chunk of Morocco’s team, including Hakimi, was born and nurtured in Europe, there has been a sentiment among the players that the team is representing the entire area rather than just its small portion of it. Sofiane Boufal, a winger, thanked all the Moroccans in the globe for their support following the match. “To all Arabs and Muslims alike. Yours is the victory.”
Over the past several days, it had seemed as though this competition had done away with youth’s carefree spirit. After all, the group stage is for entertainment—as evidenced by Argentina’s loss to the Saudis, Japan’s surprising victories over Germany and Spain, and Australia’s triumph over Denmark—but the knockout stages are serious business.
The United States was easily defeated by the Netherlands. Argentina easily defeated an underpowered Australia. Brazil, Croatia, France, England, and Croatia also had no time for romance. The surprise packages were abruptly and casually disregarded one by one, and the previous order was reinstated.
As it turned out, there was still one more sting in the tail. Spain’s seven-goal annihilation of Costa Rica to open 2017 World Cup was an unstoppable, tyrannical performance that appeared to serve as a warning to the rest of the tournament. But since then, that performance had developed a certain air of a false alarm.
Understanding Spain’s issue doesn’t require a particularly intricate analysis or in-depth familiarity with systems and methods. Despite dominating games, Spain fails to score. nonetheless, not enough objectives. not as many as its technical prowess, aesthetic attractiveness, and artistic refinement call for.
And it was held accountable for Morocco. The side of coach Walid Regragui has played four games at this World Cup, totaling 390 minutes, without giving up a goal to an opponent. (The one goal it has given up was a self-inflicted injury versus Canada.) Not only does that include the extra time versus Spain, but it also, astonishingly, includes the penalty shootout.
Morocco successfully repelled the Spanish with practiced skill in open play. Only briefly did Luis Enrique’s team pose a threat: an opportunity for Alvaro Morata here, a free kick for Dani Olmo there, and Pablo Sarabia clipping the post with what turned out to be the penultimate kick before penalties. But a lot of the time there was just no way through the immovable, unbending Moroccan back line; every time Spain thought it had a sight of an opening, a leg, a head, or a chest seemed to turn the threat away.
For a while, penalties appeared to be Spain’s greatest chance of advancement; after all, Morocco had won the better of the meager opportunities that had existed. Spain’s flaw was, however, far more obvious from 12 yards away.
Sarabia, who was brought in just to take a penalty, missed the opening shot. The second was scuffed by Carlos Soler. One of the few surviving members of the World Cup-winning team from a long time ago, Sergio Busquets, walked forward to take the third. He appeared completely unruffled and full of confidence, as he always does. He also missed.
The noise became more intense and more overpowering, almost primal, with each round of the drums. Hakimi advanced by walking. He stopped and inhaled. He then chipped his penalty past Simón with ease and accuracy. It turned out that the commotion had barely begun as the ball touched the net.
Morocco will face off against Portugal, who swiftly defeated Switzerland 6-1 in their knockout game, on Saturday, December 10, at 9:00 CST.