The 2022 World Cup has been one of many firsts. It is the first tournament to be hosted in the Arab world, the first tournament held outside of the traditional European summer and, on the pitch, will be the first World Cup to see an African team in the semi-finals.
The Atlas Lions will go head-to-head with defending champions France for a chance to make even more history by reaching the final, but even if their journey was to end in the semis, they will still be forever lauded for their efforts.
‘Crazy’ Mbappe ‘in conversation with Zidane and Platini’ for best-ever France player
AN HOUR AGO
Breaking down these kinds of World Cup barriers is nothing new to the north African side and their achievements in Qatar simply add to what is becoming a growing list.
Making a (first) point
The year 1970 was a milestone one for African football. The World Cup in Mexico was the first time the continent had a guaranteed spot at the tournament and only the second time an African side would compete on the biggest stage since Egypt in 1934.
A lot of this was to do with the fact many African nations had only recently gained their independence but equally, FIFA’s virtual neglect of football beyond Europe and South America.
Teams from Africa, Asia and Oceania were regularly forced into a convoluted process to reach the finals, often offered just a single place between them to fight it out over.
Emboldened by their new-found independence and the formation of its own association, CAF, African football teams chose to boycott the 1966 tournament due to the unfairness of qualifying as well as FIFA’s support for apartheid South Africa at the time.
The decision ultimately paid off. FIFA caved to the pressure and allocated Africa a deserved place in Mexico – a place that would go to Morocco, who came out on top in three rounds of qualifying featuring 10 other sides.
When Egypt initially took part at the World Cup in Italy 36 years earlier it was a fleeting appearance as they were eliminated in the first round by Hungary. With group stages now introduced, Morocco would be guaranteed three matches to showcase their talents.
A baptism of fire awaited as their first match would be against the 1966 runners-up West Germany. Undaunted, Morocco scored first against their more illustrious opponents and only two second-half goals saw them eventually succumb to defeat.
Tragic circumstances impacted their second match as opponents Peru were potentially set to withdraw from the tournament following a devastating earthquake back home that killed thousands.
Morocco were given a day off training in anticipation of being awarded the match but Peru eventually chose to stay and soundly beat their under-prepared African opponents 3-0.
Although heading home, Morocco secured a historic draw in their final match against Bulgaria. Maouhoub Ghazouani’s second-half equaliser in a 1-1 draw may have looked Inconsequential in the grand scheme of the tournament but proved a significant moment as it secured Morocco’s – and Africa’s – first point at a World Cup.
Youssef En-Nesyri of Morocco heads to score the team’s first goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 quarter final match between Morocco and Portugal at Al Thumama Stadium on December 10, 2022 in Doha, Qatar
Image credit: Getty Images
Making waves in Mexico
The Atlas Lions would not reach another World Cup for 16 years, coincidentally, once again in Mexico in 1986.
Under Brazilian manager Jose Faria, there was a sense of cautious optimism, although they would have their work cut out in Group F alongside 1982 third-place side Poland and Euro 1984 semi-finalists Portugal and England.
Much like their future heroes in Qatar, the 1986 side was built on a solid defence, but after holding both Poland and England to impressive if uneventful goalless draws, Faria’s team threw caution to the wind with one of the performances of the tournament to sweep aside Portugal 3-1 – a curious precursor of what was to come some 36 years later.
The then-two points awarded for the win meant the Atlas Lions would finish above England, Poland and Portugal to become both the first African team to win a group at the World Cup and the first to advance beyond the opening stage.
Although their journey would end against West Germany in the round of 16 following an 88th-minute Lother Matthaus free-kick after another dogged defensive display, Morocco’s achievement paved the way for the likes of Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana, who would all make it into the knockout stages in the coming decades.
‘It’s a beautiful party’ – France players look ahead to World Cup semi-final with Morocco
Fancied against the French?
Cameroon’s remarkable 1990 run was only halted by two Gary Lineker penalties in the quarter-finals as they stood just seven minutes away from beating England.
Ghana were even closer in 2010 when Asamoah Gyan missed a last-minute penalty against Uruguay and saw his side lose the subsequent shootout to miss out on a semi-final place.
Sandwiched between that was Senegal losing by a Golden Goal to Turkey in the 2002 quarters.
The continent finally has reason to celebrate a semi-finalist following Youssef En-Nesyri’s towering header which saw them to victory over Portugal and given their run has also seen them beat Belgium and Spain without conceding, nobody can rule out another first for Morocco knowing that the final is within touching distance.