Morocco are looking to make history on Saturday. They face Portugal in Doha hoping to become the first African team ever to reach the semi-finals of the Fifa World Cup. But this side has all the hallmarks of an outfit that could go on surprising a few people, and it wouldn’t be a new phenomenon were the Atlas Lions to set a World Cup milestone against the same nation they defeated to break down barriers 36 years ago.
Back in 1986, Morocco had drawn 0-0 in their first two group fixtures in Mexico against Poland and England but knew that, thanks to the 24-team format, another scoreless encounter against Portugal in Zapopan might see them through to the round of 16.
Yet no African nation had ever reached that stage before, and Jose Torres’ Portuguese side had the edge on goals scored when it came to the qualifying permutations. Much also depended on England’s clash with Poland in Monterrey which kicked off at the same time, meaning only a victory would assure Morocco of a slice of history.
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Morocco had all the early play but a lot of their chances were speculative efforts from around the edge of the area. Still, it was a tactic that paid off. Abderrazak Khairi hit a low drive from 20 yards after sloppy Portuguese passing in their own third, and his effort skimmed past Vitor Damas into the bottom-right corner of the net to give the Africans the lead.
Coming moments after Gary Lineker had scored the second goal of his eventual first-half hat-trick over in Monterrey, it was a strike which put the Atlas Lions top of Group F. Portugal tried to increase the tempo but with their one-goal advantage Morocco were still able to play the game on their own terms and Khairi continued to cause havoc coming off the left.
He had a second on 26 minutes, steaming in unmarked at the back post to slam home Labid Khalifa’s cross. It was the least Morocco deserved, and having still not conceded in the entire tournament their two-goal lead looked as safe as any in World Cup history.
Now bottom of the group and heading out, Portugal started to attack with more verve after the interval but Morocco seemed no less assured of themselves out of possession and always looked likely to add another when they did win the ball back.
Just after the hour mark they grabbed their third, Mohammed Timoumi picking out Abdelkarim Merry’s bursting run with a delightful left-footed cross for the striker to slot past Damas and put Morocco’s moment of history beyond doubt. Portugal substitute Diamantino made it 3-1 late on with a delightful chip to breach the Moroccan back line for the first time in the tournament but it meant nothing in the grand scheme of things despite a frenetic barrage on Badou Zaki's goalmouth in the last 10 minutes.
The subsequent round-of-16 tie against perennial finalists West Germany was another which saw Morocco acquit themselves very well, but they were undone by a superb Lothar Matthaus free-kick from 30 yards in the 87th minute. It came moments after a brilliant save by Zaki from the same Matthaus had initially looked set to send the game into extra-time without any score. Still, the Morocco team of 1986 had been trailblazers, and their 2022 counterparts are looking to push the envelope further.
This time around the Atlas Lions have been equally difficult to break down. No opponent has scored against them in 832 minutes of football, with Nayef Aguerd’s own goal in the 2-1 group-stage win over Canada their only concession in six months. They are equally fearless too, with their belief in their back line opening them up to attack opponents on the counter whenever the opportunity arises. Make no mistake about it, Portugal might well be the victims of further World Cup history this weekend.
Thirty-six years on from breaking down one barrier, Morocco are on the verge of barging through another. The spirit of ’86 suggests they have nothing to fear.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change