DOHA: Belgium are the second best team in the world, according to FIFA, but they were definitely second best to Morocco on Sunday.
The 2-0 win that went the way of the Atlas Lions was fully deserved and surely the most impressive World Cup result in the country’s history. It also leaves the side’s short-term future looking pretty healthy too.
The second-half goals from Abdelhamid Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhlal mean that Morocco have claimed four points from their first two games in Group F. A draw against Canada will put them in the last 16.
But whatever happens on Thursday, this was Morocco’s best ever day on the global stage.
Back in 1986, they became the first Arab (and African) team to make the second round of the World Cup. Then they topped the group with two 0-0 draws against Poland and England, before defeating Portugal 3-1. That dream ended with a narrow 1-0 defeat against eventual finalists West Germany.
Fast forward 12 years and Morocco found themselves in another tough group. They started with a 2-2 draw against a strong Norway team, a point followed by a 3-0 defeat at the hands of the mighty Brazil. In the final game, the North Africans, inspired by Mustapha Hadji, sparkled as they put Scotland to the sword, winning 3-0.
Ten minutes from the end they were heading into the next stage as Brazil were leading Norway 1-0, only for a late turnaround from the Scandinavians to give them a 2-1 win and that coveted knockout stage spot.
Knowledge of the past means that coach Walid Regragui will not be taking anything for granted against Canada, but history has already been made.
Beating Portugal 36 years ago was a fine result, but the Iberians were not at their best; Scotland 12 years later were stronger than now but still not a major power.
Belgium are different. Second in the world at present and third in Russia in 2018, this generation of Red Devils may have lost their luster to an extent, but the likes of Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City, Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, and Romelu Lukaku, on loan at Inter Milan, are generally regarded as world-class and play at elite clubs.
And yet Morocco were too good for them. With a defense that has not conceded a goal in five games since Regragui replaced Vahid Halilhodzic in August, they kept Belgium at bay fairly comfortably.
Hakim Ziyech was excellent, driving his team forward at all times.
There was such intensity and purpose from Morocco that they were far too much for the Europeans to handle.
The scoreline did not flatter the victors, and confidence will now be sky high.
In retrospect, Morocco’s 0-0 draw with Croatia in the opening game was the perfect start, providing the platform to move to the next level.
Many thought that a repeat of 1986, with two goalless draws in the opening games, would be the target, leaving victory in the final match with Canada as enough to qualify. It became quickly apparent that this was never the limit of Morocco’s ambitions.
Canada have already shown that they will be no pushovers: they have been energetic and hard-working, although perhaps lacking a cutting edge so far.
Morocco will be wary of taking their foot off the pedal, but their players will be well aware of the possibility of taking top spot in the group, as they did in 1986.
That is all about next week, though. Sunday was celebration day for the whole of Morocco, including their magnificent supporters in Qatar, after the biggest and best result in their World Cup history.