Al Khor, Qatar – They came from far and wide to be part of history: For the first time, a football team from their continent, Africa, was playing in a World Cup semifinal.
“What I have witnessed tonight will be with me for the rest of my life,” said Joseph Kithitu, a doctor who travelled from Kenya to Al Khor, a coastal town in northern Qatar, to watch Morocco take on reigning world champions France on Wednesday.
Despite a spirited performance that saw them dominate ball possession and create a string of chances, Morocco lost 2-0 to goals by France’s Theo Hernandez and Randal Kolo Muani.
“Morocco have made me proud. Morocco have made the African continent really proud,” said Kithitu. “They lost tonight but in my eyes they are winners.”
The achievement of the team nicknamed the Atlas Lions was not lost on the spectators who packed the almost 69,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium, the vast majority of whom were Morocco supporters.
The North African side was only the third from outside Europe or South America to reach a World Cup semifinal – the first was the USA at the inaugural World Cup held in Uruguay in 1930, followed by South Korea on home soil in 2002.
Kithitu, who brought his son with him to the World Cup in Qatar, said Morocco had shown the world African teams belong to the elite of the game.
“That we can go toe to toe with any team, anywhere and at any time. Next time, we will go all the way,” he predicted.
‘African football has arrived’
Morocco’s fairytale run was no walk in the park. In their opening match, they faced 2018 runners-up Croatia whom they held to a goalless draw.
The Atlas Lions then bulldozed the Red Devils of Belgium, ranked second in the world pre-tournament. The star-studded Belgium team, like others throughout the tournament, were unable to unlock Morocco’s backline and ended up losing 2-0.
Morocco then made relatively easy work of Canada, defeating them 2-1, before beating 2010 world champions Spain on penalties in the Round of 16.
In the quarterfinal, Morocco overcame Portugal 1-0 to book a date with two-time champions France.
Morocco, also the first team from an Arab country to reach the last four, became the 25th side to compete in the semifinals of the World Cup. All the other teams to reach the last four had reached the semifinal stage before, with France and Argentina having both won the tournament twice and Croatia coming second in the previous tournament in Russia.
“African football has arrived. We are here and we belong here. We beat the biggest teams in Europe to get here,” said Zik Tuma, a Ugandan who travelled from Malta for the showpiece.
“The future of African football is very bright. Our football future has never been better and more promising than now. Those who doubted us can now see our achievements,” he added.
“The sky is the limit.”
His comments echoed those of Morocco coach Walid Regragui, who said after the December 10 triumph over Portugal that Africa was “back on the map of football today”.
“We had the right attitude for our people, for us, for Africa,” Regragui, the first African coach to take a team into the World Cup quarter-finals, had told reporters.
“It is always difficult for us African coaches. You don’t think we can handle such teams tactically.”
His well-organised team’s feats on the pitch came to crown a series of impressive displays by African teams in Qatar: Cameroon became the first African team to beat five-time champions Brazil, while Senegal overcame the loss to injury of their superstar forward Sadio Mane to reach the Round of 16. Tunisia, meanwhile, held Denmark to a goalless draw and also beat France 1-0 in the group stage’s final match.
Supporter Ali Mohammad, who travelled from Sudan’s capital Khartoum to attend the first World Cup held in the Middle East, said: “Africa deserved this moment”.
“I’m very happy. We have been waiting for this for a very long time,” he added. “Yes, Morocco lost but not many countries can even dream of their achievement,” Mohammad said, noting that the Atlas Lions’ feat was celebrated across the continent.
Following the end of Morocco’s run in the tournament, African supporters in Al Khor called on the world football’s governing body, FIFA, to award the continent more places in the competition, which in its 2022 edition featured 32 teams.
“Africa is 54 countries and we only receive five places. It is time FIFA changed that. It is obvious from how Morocco played and beat all these big teams that our continent is as good as any other. We need to get our fair share of places,” said Akusa, Tuma’s wife.
Morocco will now face Croatia on Saturday in the third-place playoff at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha.
“They are legends. They are in our history books,” Mohammad said. “They will forever be in our hearts.”