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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Oliver Brown

Underdogs Morocco’s triumph of substance over style

Achraf Hakimi scores a ‘Panenka-style’ penalty to secure a shoot-out victory for Morocco against Spain. Photo: Reuters

The whistling was so shrill, so unrelenting, it sounded like the noise of a thousand locomotives.

Heaven knows how Spain’s three luckless penalty-takers, confronting this cacophonous wall of sound, even kicked the ball at all. In the end, Pablo Sarabia, Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets all quailed in the face of the sonic onslaught, meek bystanders to the greatest moment in Morocco’s sporting history. Here, on the western extremities of Doha, it felt, amid a carnival of red-and-green, as if we had been teleported to the wildest night in downtown Casablanca.

For a World Cup often derided as inauthentic, this was a raw, broiling, unforgettable dénouement. Achraf Hakimi was the hero of the hour, approaching the decisive penalty with a casual stroll, dinking it beyond a stricken Unai Simon.

It was an act of supreme nonchalance by a player born in Madrid, sending the country of his birth out of the World Cup. He seemed insouciant, a man impervious to pressure, smiling at his feat as his team-mates rushed to engulf him and as thousands behind the goal erupted in pure delirium.

The significance of this result to the tournament cannot be overstated. It is not just that Spain, champions in 2010, have been ejected before the quarter-finals for the third successive occasion, but that Morocco have ensured the Arab world’s representation in the last eight at the region’s first World Cup.

“I am not here to be a politician,” Walid Regragui, their head coach, has said. But their players clearly are. Within moments of Hakimi’s masterstroke, they unfurled a giant Palestinian flag on the pitch.

​So overwhelming was the joy, Morocco’s press conference was less an interrogation than a lachrymose tribute night. “I don’t have a question,” admitted one of their reporters to goalkeeper Bono. “I just want to say thank you, because this has never been done before. You have gained back the whole trust of 40 million people. You have made history. I have tears in my eyes.” His compatriots responded with a round of applause.

Nobody will relish taking on Regragui’s team in this mood. They are fearsome adversaries, drilled to make life as uncomfortable as possible for any opponents, even an elegant young Spanish team who outpassed them by a ratio of three to one.

Beauty, ultimately, stood no chance against the brute force of the Moroccan challenge. Not when Romain Saiss was flying into tackles as if his life depended on it, or when Bono, launchpad for a million Beautiful Day puns, proved an immovable object once more. In over six-and-a-half hours of football, he has stood undaunted, the only blot on his record an own goal by Nayef Aguerd.

Africa’s high-water mark at the World Cup has been equalled, with Morocco emulating Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana as the continent’s fourth quarter-finalists.

They are a nightmare to try to subdue, scrapping for every inch, waiting to pounce on the counter-attack. Exhorted by their tireless supporters, who ensured all 120 minutes of this game unfolded to a piercing din, they knew they held a psychological advantage for the shoot-out.

The cheers were ear-splitting when they realised the kicks would be taken right in front of them. Sarabia, the midfielder brought on in the dying seconds of extra-time for this very purpose, looked as though he would rather be anywhere else. Wilting amid the seething hostility, and with Morocco already 1-0 ahead thanks to Abdelhamid Sabiri, he skewed his effort into the post. Hakim Ziyech added to the agony with an emphatic shot up the middle, before Soler crumbled, his attempt smothered by an inspired Bono.

Not even a miscue by substitute Badr Benoun could save Spain now. Luis Enrique, back in the dugout, was staring bleakly into space, dreading the inquisition to come.

When even Busquets, the wizened veteran, had his attempt blocked, the stage belonged to Hakimi, barely blinking as he applied the glorious final flourish. Hakimi, the Paris Saint-Germain right-back, more than justified the elevated status that his coach affords him.

“Some players need to be treated differently,” Regragui said. “It’s the same with Neymar at Brazil. Hakimi is not just any player.”

Raised in Spain and once part of Real Madrid’s youth set-up, Hakimi was the star turn here of a truly incendiary clash of cultures. Spain and Morocco might be separated by just nine miles across the Strait of Gibraltar, but in the aesthetics of their football could scarcely be further apart, as neat little passing triangulations collided headlong with a ferocious high press.

Every Spanish touch was met with a chorus of mockery, sharper than a knife on glass.

Spain were stuck in the same predictable patterns of lateral passing, with any threat snuffed out in the final third. Nico Williams injected a dash of pace, while Alvaro Morata was reduced to swinging wildly across the face of goal in the hope somebody would connect.

Their clearest chance came in the final minute of normal time, when Soler’s free-kick found the head of Morata, who crumpled to the pitch despairingly as his header flew over.

The battle was tense, attritional, sometimes ill-tempered, with Morocco unyielding in their resistance. And it laid the platform, improbably, for one of the World Cup’s great triumphs of substance over style. 

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