Morocco players celebrate at the end of the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Morocco and Spain, at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — The first World Cup held in an Arab nation has produced the Arab world’s first quarterfinalist.
Morocco became only the fourth African country to reach the quarterfinals at the biggest soccer tournament in the world by beating Spain 3-0 in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw through extra time.
The Moroccans were playing in only their second knockout game at a World Cup, an event which is being held in the Middle East for the first time in its nearly 100-year history.
“Right now is a special moment for all Africa, for all the Arab countries, for all the Muslims around this world,” Morocco midfielder Azzedine Ounahi said. “You try to make them happy, try to make ourselves happy. And I think it goes quite well.”
The World Cup in Qatar is the first to be played in the Arab world and only the second to be held in Asia. The tournament began with one of the biggest upsets in history when Saudi Arabia beat two-time champion Argentina on the third day of action.
The Saudis were eliminated, as were host Qatar and Tunisia, in the group stage. That left Morocco as the Arab world’s standard bearer.
“I’m very proud of my fans, of my people and Arabic people,” said Morocco coach Walid Regragui, who is the first African to coach an African team to the quarterfinals. “Also because I think you have Qatari people here, maybe Algerian people, Tunisian people, Arabic people and African people.”
Achraf Hakimi, who was born in Madrid and previously played for Real Madrid, converted the deciding penalty in the shootout. Abdelhamid Sabiri and Hakim Ziyech, who returned to the national team after a dispute with the previous coach, also scored.
Morocco has been the biggest surprise of the tournament and will next face Portugal in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
Morocco, which has a complex geopolitical relationship with close neighbor Spain, advanced from a difficult group that included Canada, 2018 semifinalist Belgium, and 2018 runner-up Croatia.
The team came to the tournament with more than half of its squad filled with players who were not born in Morocco, the most of any of the 32 participating countries.
“Today I think it showed to the world every Moroccan is Moroccan with his passport,” Regragui said. “When he comes to the national team, you want to die, you want to fight. And that is what I want to show. And now, we have one example. The coach is born in France but nobody can have my heart but my country.”
The king of Morocco called to congratulate the team after the game.
Morocco, which also reached the round of 16 at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, is also the only team from outside Europe or South America to make it to the last eight in Qatar.
Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana are the only other African nations to reach the World Cup quarterfinals. None of the three advanced to the semifinals.
Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, who plays for Spanish club Sevilla, saved two of the three penalties he faced in the shootout, from Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets. Pablo Sarabia hit the post.
“We knew that if we went to the penalty shootout, we had one of the best goalkeepers in the world and we could win it,” said Regragui, who took over as coach of Morocco in August and had little time to prepare the team ahead of the World Cup.
Sarabia had entered the match in the final minutes of extra time, apparently for the shootout. He replaced Nico Williams, who had also come in as a substitute earlier in the match.
“It’s my responsibility,” said Spain coach Luis Enrique, who before the match said he had asked his players to practice 1,000 penalty kicks while with their clubs. “I picked the first three penalty-takers, and then they could decide themselves. But the first three were my decision, and I would’ve done the same thing again. The only thing I wished I could do was to take Bounou out and put another goalkeeper in there.”
Spain was eliminated by host Russia in a penalty shootout at the 2018 World Cup, and by Italy in the semifinals of last year’s European Championship. The team hasn’t advanced past the last 16 at the World Cup since it won the tournament in 2010 in South Africa.
“We were unable to score … so no matter how much we say that we deserved to win for the chances we created and for playing more in their area, it is not going to change anything,” said Spain goalkeeper Unai Simón, who stopped one penalty in the shootout. “The only thing left for us is to accept that we have been eliminated.”
It was the fifth straight time Spain played extra time in a knockout round of a major tournament. The team played 120 minutes against Russia and in all three of its knockout games at Euro 2020.
Moroccan fans were significantly outnumbered by — and were louder than — the Spaniards at Education City Stadium.
It was the second match in the round of 16 to go into extra time at this year’s World Cup. Croatia beat Japan on penalties Monday.