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Africa expectant as Morocco battles Portugal for semifinal ticket

By Christian Okpara
10 December 2022   |   4:15 am
Morocco, which last Tuesday confirmed Africa’s position as the world’s third best football-playing continent, are at it again. This time, they want to become the first African country to play in the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup.

[FILE] Morocco’s defender #02 Achraf Hakimi (2nd R) celebrates with teammates after converting the last penalty during the penalty shoot-out to win the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between Morocco and Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 6, 2022. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

Morocco, which last Tuesday confirmed Africa’s position as the world’s third best football-playing continent, are at it again. This time, they want to become the first African country to play in the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup. That they will achieve if they beat Portugal in the third quarterfinal game of the ongoing Qatar 2022 World Cup.

The match at the Al Thumama Stadium, Doha, begins by 4.00 p.m. Nigerian time. The Atlas Lions got to this exalted position when they defeated Spain 3-0 via a penalty shoot out in a round of 16 clash last week.

Since that feat, which made them the fourth African country to reach the last eight, pundits have adjusted their view of the North Africans, with some now tipping them to ruffle more features in this competition.

But against a side as formidable as Portugal, the battle will test all goalkeeper Yassin Bounou and his men have in their armoury.

Biounou was the hero on Tuesday when the Lions defied popular predictions to eliminate highly rated Spain. Given the fury with which Portugal have tackled all their opponents so far, Walid Regragui’s side expects a tough fight from Cristiano Ronaldo and his men.

Morocco won Group F with an unbeaten record and have conceded just one goal in their run to the quarterfinals – their best showing in six appearances at the global showpiece.

Looking forward to another hard day in office, Coach Regragui saluted Moroccan fans for the tremendous backing his squad has received during the tournament, saying they would not have gotten this far without their support. He said: “I think it is impossible you do that without these fans. They are coming to the hotel, wanting tickets, a lot of fans came to Qatar to support the team, from America, from Europe and Morocco.

“They love the country and what I can tell them is we have done nothing. I need them for the quarterfinals but I am very proud of my fans and of my people.”

With a win against Portugal tomorrow, Morocco will advance to play the winner of England vs. France. Regragui, 46, took over as the Morocco coach just over three months ago, after leading Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca to the African Champions League title in May.

He replaced Bosnian Vahid Halihodzic, who led the team through qualification but was dismissed, in part, after clashing with star players Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui — both players have started all four games in Qatar.

With Morocco representing both African and Arab nations, a run to the semifinals would be stand as a historic accomplishment with far-reaching impact.

“I want to change the mentality,” Regragui said. “A lot of African coaches can actually coach in Europe and in great clubs.”
Portugal showed in their round of 16 outing against Switzerland that they are ready to add to their Euro 2016 title by winning Qatar 2022. They beat the Swiss 6-1, even without Ronaldo.

Ronaldo was dropped for the game against the Swiss and his replacement, Goncalo Ramos, scored a hattrick that inspired Fernando Santos’ team to victory.

With calm having returned to the Portuguese camp after an alleged upheaval cause by Santos’ decision to bench Ronaldo in the game against Switzerland, the coach has an array of stars to choose from.

Ronaldo has been pictured smiling broadly in Portugal training ahead of the quarterfinal against Morocco. He has consistently attracted negative headlines at the tournament, with revelations the veteran is causing friction in the team camp and the high-profile forward denying reports he wanted to walk out on the competition after being dropped.