DOHA: Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois fails to save a shot by Morocco’s Abdelhamid Sabiri during their Group ‘F” match at the Al Thumama Stadium on Sunday.—Reuters
DOHA: Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois fails to save a shot by Morocco’s Abdelhamid Sabiri during their Group ‘F” match at the Al Thumama Stadium on Sunday.—Reuters

ABDELHAMID Sabiri had been on the pitch for a mere five minutes when Morocco won a free kick wide on the left, pretty close to the corner flag, against Belgium here at the Al Thumama Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The goal was at the acutest of angles but no one was stopping him from having a go.

Sabiri wrapped his right foot around the ball, curling it at pace and catching Thibaut Courtois out of surprise. The Belgium goalkeeper saw the shot go under him and into the back of the net. Sabiri’s team-mates gathered around him and sank to the ground in prostration, the largely pro-Moroccan at the 44000-capacity venue, its circular design reflecting the traditional woven cap worn by Arab men and boys, wild with joy.

Morocco have won just twice at the World Cup; their last victory coming in 1998. Leading 1-0, they now had 16 minutes to close out a famous win against a Belgium side, ranked second only to Brazil in the world. Belgium had opened their campaign in Qatar with a barely-deserved 1-0 win over Canada and knew a victory would take them through. Now they were fighting for a draw.

Roberto Martinez summoned Romelu Lukaku from his bench to turn the tide in his side’s favour. Instead, it was Morocco who scored to seal a historic win for their side in the second minute of time added on. A long ball from goalkeeper Monir Mohamedi caught out the Belgians and found its way to Hakim Ziyech. Ziyech ran into the space on the right before squaring it for Zakaria Aboulkhal, who had come onto the pitch just before the first goal. Aboukhlal had timed his run perfectly and shot it first time into the roof of the net.

Morocco had opened with a goalless draw against Croatia and the 2-0 win here sent them top of Group ‘F’, a point ahead of Belgium. A draw against Canada will take them through to the last-16 for the first time since 1986.

This win, though, will live long in the memory. “Our supporters deserved this,” Moroccan left-bak Noussair Mazraoui told reporters. “We missed a lot of chances in the first game but today we didn’t miss.”

With Croatia playing Canada later in the day, Belgium might also be able to sneak through with a draw in their final group game against their European rivals but Courtois said Belgium have “no other option but to win”.

Belgium had dominated possession for most of the first half. But they had been largely sterile, the well-organised Moroccans closing down the avenues for the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard to influence the game.

Morocco and Ziyech had thought their moment had arrived right before half-time.

The Chelsea winger hadn’t been part of the Morocco side that had secured qualification for the World Cup. His recall came after Vahid Halilhodzic, the coach who had led them to Qatar, had been fired by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation over differences over preparations for the tournament, most notably for sidelining Ziyech due to a lack of discipline.

The incoming Walid Regragui, a former Morocco international, had restored Ziyech and here he was standing over a free-kick on the right, preparing to curl his left foot around it.

The shot was pinpoint, hitting the midriff of Courtois before nestling into the back of the net.

Ziyech raised his arms to celebrate, his team-mate Achraf Hakimi running to embrace him. But the Belgians were protesting. Courtois seemed to have been unsighted by the onrushing Romain Saiss and the VAR found that the Moroccan captain was fractionally offside.

It only served to intensify the atmosphere and a stirring second half was in store with the game opening up for both sides. First Hazard weaved into the box and saw a rasping shot saved by Monir Mohamedi while at the other end, Soufiane Boufal cut inside from the left and shot narrowly wide.

Dries Mertens, brought on to give Belgium more bite, saw a shot saved by Mohamedi.

But then came the goal that changed the game.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2022

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