There is always plenty of context to a Morocco-Spain football game.
From the Islamic conquest of Spain that was launched from the shores of north Africa in the 8th century, to the more recent Spanish occupation to the last time these sides faced off at the World Cup, four years ago, a match that ended in controversy with VAR (Video Assistant Referee) rearing its ugly head.
Tens of thousands of Moroccans from all over the world thronged the Education City Stadium in Doha to witness the latest chapter. They brought all the colour and the noise on a cool Tuesday night. Despite their best efforts, though, The Battle for Andalusia ended in a stalemate.
In open play, that is. After 120 minutes of football, there was nothing to separate the two sides. But this is, of course, the knockout round of a World Cup and there are no draws. Having kept their goals unbreached through open play it was now down to Unai Simon and Yassine Bounou (Bono) to step to the plate and see it through.
Pablo Sarabia, brought on by Spanish coach Luis Enrique in the 118th minute had, perhaps the best chance of the game for the 2010 world champions, clipping the outside of the post from an almost impossible angle with what was to be pretty much the final move of the game (could have been offside too).
He stepped up, undoubtedly part of the plan, to take Spain’s first penalty. With unerring precision, once again, Sarabia rattled Bono’s left post, sending the Moroccans into rapture. The six-foot-five-and-a-half Morocco keeper, who plays his club football in Spain with Sevilla, seemed to have been part of Enrique’s World Cup preparations.
Simon and Bono had a nice moment before the penalties knowing, perhaps better than most, that penalties at this level of football are not down to luck. Enrique is another believer in that concept, both from a keeper’s perspective as well as for those taking spot kicks.
In the pre-match press conference on Monday, the Spanish coach explained at great length his ideas on penalty shootouts. “Over a year ago, in many national camps we told players, ‘You have homework ahead of the World Cup. You must take at least 1,000 penalties with the club’,” he said.
“You can’t just train them when they’re with the national team. I don’t think it’s a lottery. If you train often, then the way you take penalties improves. Obviously, you can’t train the pressure and tension, but you can cope with it.”
And on the day it was Morocco who coped with the pressure, the tension and the execution much better.
After Sarabia’s miss Hakim Ziyech put Morocco 2–0 up on penalties. Then came the Bono show. He showed exactly how well prepared he was by saving off both Carlos Soler and Spanish captain Sergio Busquets to lead his team, the first from Africa to make it to the World Cup quarterfinals since Senegal in 2010.
“We felt the support of our people, be it in Morocco or any other part of the world. That’s what gave us the impetus. I offer this gift of joy to all of our people and thank all the players for the effort they put in tonight. When you’re in the thick of it you don’t realise what you have achieved. As time goes on maybe we will realise it. For now we are just happy,” Bono said after the game.
Since Walid Regragui took over as coach of Morocco less than 90-days before the tournament began he has worked the Atlas Lions into a formidable defensive unit. In eight games they have only conceded one goal. There is a strong argument to be made for his first-choice full-back pairing of right-back Achraf Hakimi (Paris Saint-Germain) and Noussair Mazraoui (FC Bayern Munich) on the left, might just be the most formidable at the World Cup. On the night the two ran relentlessly, and alongside the likes of Sofyan Amrabat, who showed a version of himself we have not seen since his days at Verona in the Serie A, and Azzedine Ounahi showed not just heart but also flair and technical ability to rival the very best.
Hakimi can often be found attacking the back post and is also a key player in build-up. Tonight he had the most touches (32) and passes attempted (22) in the opening 45 minutes. Regragui has called Hakimi a “warrior” and is very much part of the process he initiated to bring the best Moroccan players into the national team.
Back in 1998, only two players in the World Cup squad were born outside the country. Under Regragui the number has gone up to 14; the highest in the tournament. This is despite strong opposition to foreign-born players among a large section of the Moroccan media and criticism of players in the past, such as Hakim Ziyech and Marouane Chamakh. One of the first things Regragui did when he took over as coach was to call Ziyech and Mazraoui back into the fold. The rest, as he says, he will think about when he is old and retired.