AL-RAYYAN, Qatar — For 2 hours, the noise had been constructing. It had started off at incessant and gone from there, passing by ear-splitting and head-spinning until it leveled out at somewhere beyond deafening. The constant, percussive roar looked as if it would emanate not a lot from the tens of hundreds of Morocco fans contained in the Education City Stadium on Tuesday, but from the concrete and steel itself.
Achraf Hakimi walked into that wall of sound, his head bowed, as if all the noise and all of the strain was bearing down upon him. He would take the penalty that would not only end Spain’s stay in Qatar, eliminating one among the tournament favorites, but that would take Morocco to its first World Cup quarterfinal.
The noise rose one other octave. The pressure dropped one other bar. After which Hakimi — who was born in Spain, raised in Spain and might need played for Spain — progressed and, with a slight, deft touch of the ball, nothing greater than a brush of silk, gently stroked his penalty past Unai Simón, a moment of utmost calm before unbridled chaos descended.
On the sector, Morocco’s players sprinted to Hakimi, all the weariness, all the fatigue sustained over the course of an extended, arduous evening now forgotten. Within the stands, Morocco’s fans poured over one another, desperately reaching out to the players in gratitude, in ecstasy, in disbelief.
Morocco’s players had, because the striker Walid Cheddira said after the sport, achieved “something historic” for the country. It was not only that Morocco had never been past the last 16 of the World Cup; it was that no North African country, no Arab country, had. And now it had broken that ceiling here, at the primary Arab World Cup.
The sense of solidarity amongst all the teams from what’s broadly, and just a little indelicately, called the “Arab world” has been one of the crucial striking facets of the primary couple of weeks of this tournament in Qatar.
It runs deeper than the choreographed political gestures — the emir of Qatar sitting next to Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, on the opening game, and donning a Saudi Arabian scarf just a few days later — staged for diplomatic purposes within the stadiums’ V.I.P. areas.
On the streets of Doha, Tunisian fans greeted Morocco’s group phase successes with sincere glee, and vice versa; Saudi Arabia’s shocking win against Argentina prompted real celebration not only in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, but in Cairo and Amman and Beirut, too.
That sense of unified purpose has bled all the way down to the players; there was a sense, amongst Morocco’s squad — a considerable portion of which was, like Hakimi, born and raised in Europe — that it’s representing the region as an entire, not only its little a part of it. “Due to all of the Moroccans all around the world on your support,” the winger Sofiane Boufal said after the sport. “To all Arab people, to all Muslim people. This win belongs to you.”
Spain missed all three penalties it took within the shootout.Credit…Julian Finney/Getty Images
It had felt, over the previous couple of days, as if this tournament had allotted with the frivolity of youth. The group phase is for fun, in spite of everything — Argentina’s defeat to the Saudis, Japan stunning Germany and Spain, and Australia overcoming Denmark — however the knockout rounds are for business.
The Netherlands made short work of the USA. Argentina coasted past an overmatched Australia. France, England, Croatia and Brazil had no time for love, either. One after the other, the surprise packages were breezily and summarily dismissed, and the old order re-established.
Because it turned out, one final sting within the tail was still lurking. Spain began this World Cup with a seven-goal rout of Costa Rica, an irresistible, imperious display that looked as if it would function a warning to the remainder of the sector. Since then, though, that performance had began to tackle the distinct air of a false alarm.
Spain’s problem doesn’t require any particularly complex evaluation or an in-depth knowledge of tactics and systems to grasp. Spain dominates games but doesn’t rating goals. Not enough goals, anyway. Not the variety of goals that its technical ability, its aesthetic appeal and its stylistic sophistication warrant. Against Germany and Japan, it was exposed: held to a draw by the previous, beaten by two quick-fire sucker punches by the latter.
And against Morocco, it was made to pay. Coach Walid Regragui’s team has now played 4 games on this World Cup — a complete of 390 minutes — and it has not conceded a single goal to an opposition player. (The one goal it has allowed, against Canada, was self-inflicted.) That not only features a period of overtime against Spain but in addition, remarkably, encompasses a penalty shootout, too.
In open play, Morocco held the Spanish at bay with a practiced expertise. Luis Enrique’s team threatened only fleetingly: a probability for Álvaro Morata here, a Dani Olmo free kick there, Pablo Sarabia clipping the post with what proved to be the ultimate kick before penalties. Much of the time, though, there was simply no way through the unmoving, unyielding Moroccan back line; each time Spain believed it saw a glimpse of a gap, a leg or a head or a chest appeared to show the danger away.
Perhaps the best testament to Morocco’s obduracy got here late in normal time, when Rodri — a central midfielder being deployed as a central defender — strode forward and shot, more in hope than in expectation, from 35 yards. Regragui’s team must have taken it as a compliment. In Spanish eyes, that’s nearly as good as an admission of defeat.
Penalties had looked like Spain’s best probability of progress for a while; the higher of the scant possibilities that there had been, in spite of everything, had fallen to Morocco. If anything, though, Spain’s defect was much more apparent from 12 yards.
Sarabia, introduced with the express purpose of taking a penalty, missed the primary kick. Carlos Soler scuffed the second. Sergio Busquets, one among the last remaining links to that team from a lifetime ago that won the World Cup, strolled as much as take the third. He looked, as he all the time does, entirely unruffled, an image of absolute confidence. He missed, too.
At every turn, the drums beat just a little harder, the roar grew just a little louder, an awesome, almost elemental sound. Hakimi walked forward. He paused, took a breath. After which he chipped his penalty, soft and unerring, past Simón. Because the ball landed in the online, it turned out the noise was only just getting began.