World Cup of FIFA: Spain’s possession kings are driven home by Morocco’s resilience

North Africans show guarded strength, battling soul to win in punishment shootout.

Achraf Hakimi turned back, nearly broke into a dance, and then froze, possibly in a sudden surge of emotion, as he watched his Panenka trickle into the center of the goal. His teammates rushed over to him and extended their arms to embrace him.

As if to tease them, Hakimi sped off in the direction of Yassine Bounou, the goalkeeper they affectionately refer to as “Bono.” Bounou was the rockstar of the night and saved twice from Spain’s Sergio Busquets and Carlos Soler on their second and third attempts in the shootout.

After 120 minutes of goalless play, Morocco defeated Spain 3-0 in the tie-breaker after their first shot, by Pablo Sarabia, had rebounded off the post.

In the most historic night in Moroccan football, the revelry never stopped. The best they had ever done was reaching the pre-quarterfinals of the 1986 tournament, powered by their golden generation, but losing to a goal by Lothar Matthaus in the 88th minute. They were always underdogs.

This 2022 cohort, who lacked such a reputation, ensured that they did not experience any pain or aches at the last minute.

The occasion would have been sweeter had the victory come against Spain, with whom they share a border and have had fractious diplomatic ties and territorial disputes in the past.

Ironically, Spain was kicked out of the tournament by Hakimi, a player from Spain. Sevilla’s roster includes Bounou as well. Additionally, a number of others were either born or affiliated with Spanish teams.

In essence, it was a triumph of Morocco’s defensive resilience, determination, will, and bravery. With their array of technical players, Spain dominated the game; they had 13 attempts on goal, compared to Morocco’s six.

Even though they were young, the majority of them are still the blue-eyed boys of some of the world’s biggest clubs. Three Spaniards play for Real Madrid and up to five for Barcelona. Morocco, on the other hand, only had a few big names; Hakim Ziyech and Hakimi. However, none of it mattered in the end: reputation or glitz, lineage or history.

Walid Regragui, a native Moroccan coach, maintained his principles and did not succumb to the occasion’s grandeur. Defend with care. After all, his team has only give up one goal throughout the tournament, an own goal that was score by mistake. Therefore, he allowed Spain to have complete possession and superiority in the midfield, and his team would attack on the break.

The result was a nervous match that only occasionally burst into flame. Without any real penetration, Spain perpetually rotated and recycled the ball. Morocco’s defenders would also vigorously defend and lash the ball upfield whenever they appeared to be about to flip the switch. Spain maintained possession, but their passing and pressing were not unrelenting.

But it wasn’t just defense. When they attacked, they also produced some eye-pleasing moments. Sofiane Boufal’s trick on Marcos Llorente is the best example. He made an outrageous feint to the Spaniard, sending the defender flying twice in one second and landing him on the ground.

Spain increased their pressure throughout the match, accelerated their passing patterns, and shot after shot flew into and out of the goalmouth like willful children flying paper planes. Spain repeatedly knocked, kicked, and pounded on the red door, but it held firm like a barn door.

A quarter of the second half was played inside the Moroccan box, with almost the entire match played on the edge of it. They didn’t, though. Romain Saiss was huge, as was his partner Nayef Aguerd, who left in the second half on a limp. Equally remarkable was Hakimi and Sofia Amrabat’s assistance in repelling successive waves of Spanish intrusions.

Relievement came when normal time ended. In any case, additional time lingered. Moroccan legs were wearying, made to look wearier by the speed of Nico Williams, another substitute. Spain gained momentum; Morocco’s guard, in a real sense the whole group, got more occupied.

Spain might have felt like driving on Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, which is regarded as the world’s busiest road at rush hour. Another car appears from the left and another from the right just as one believes the road is free. A Moroccan head, shoulder, toe, or torso was frequently placed between a Spanish boot and the goal.

However, there was nothing cynical or brutish, no challenges that shook the bones or tangled the legs. In 120 minutes, they only received one yellow card, which proves their point. In keeping with the fine tradition of Italian catenaccio, it was a defensive masterclass.

Saiss could barely walk at the end. Morocco had used up all of their other options; Yet they fought, fought, and fought, as if their lives depended on the outcome of the match. Fans were just as enthusiastic as the players; even in the final moments of the game, they were huffing and puffing, sweating like water, and unconquerable in spirit.

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