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Morocco becomes first ever African team to reach World Cup semifinals with historic victory over Portugal

<i>Justin Setterfield/Getty Images</i><br/>Youssef En-Nesyri celebrates after scoring his team's goal.
Getty Images
Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
Youssef En-Nesyri celebrates after scoring his team's goal.

By Issy Ronald, CNN

Morocco made history Saturday as the first African team to reach a World Cup semifinal, defeating Portugal 1-0 to continue its sparkling run in Qatar.

Youssef En-Nesyri scored the game’s only goal, rising highest to head the ball into the net just minutes before halftime, while Morocco’s defense once again kept a clean sheet.

The Atlas Lions have become one of the stories of the tournament, holding fellow semifinalist Croatia to a draw in the group stage, and defeating Belgium, Spain and now Portugal on their way to a semifinal.

“Before it was just the Moroccans who supported us, now it is the Africans and Arabs,” manager Walid Regragui said before the quarterfinal, referencing the electric atmosphere that has accompanied his team at every game.

And the Al Thumama Stadium rang with cheers, drums and whistles on Saturday as if almost an entire continent and region were inside, witnessing their team make history.

Defeat for Portugal marked the end of what is likely to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last World Cup as even he could not make a dent in the Morocco defense and was left in tears walking down the tunnel after the final whistle.

The Atlas Lions, meanwhile, launched Regragui into the air in their now trademark victory celebration.

The last time these two teams met, at the 2018 World Cup, Ronaldo scored the game’s only goal. This time around Ronaldo started on the bench for the second consecutive match.

Both teams began brightly, with Portugal dominating possession but unable to breakdown the well-organized Morocco defense which has conceded just one goal during Qatar 2022.

Two attempts from João Félix offered the only real Portuguese threat in the opening 30 minutes — the first, a powerful, accurate header forcing goalkeeper Yassine “Bono” Bounou into action and the second, a strike that deflected off two players, ricocheting wildly, but landing on top of the netting.

Instead, it was Morocco who got the breakthrough three minutes before halftime as Yahia Attiyat-Allah floated the ball perfectly into the box and En-Nesyri rose highest, far above goalkeeper Diogo Costa and Rúben Dias, to head it into the net.

Ronaldo entered the fray just after the break for his 196th international appearance, becoming the joint most-capped men’s player of all time.

But even he could not stamp his authority on the game as Portugal remained stranded outside the box for much of the second half, held in place by a defiant Moroccan defense.

Any shots that did make it past the front lines of defense were marshalled by Bounou who plucked a powerful Bruno Fernandes strike out of the air and minutes later tipped Felix’s effort over the crossbar with his outstretched hand.

As regular time ticked into eight minutes of stoppage time, Ronaldo also had a chance to equalize but his low shot was once again saved by Bounou.

Coaches, support staff and players from both sides tensely prowled the sidelines as the game opened up in its closing minutes.

Walid Cheddira was red carded for two yellow cards in as many minutes leaving his team to defend its slender lead with just 10 men for the last six minutes.

Zakaria Aboukhlal broke free on the counterattack and only had to round Costa to seal Morocco’s victory but was unable to do so, while Pepe’s header for Portugal in front of the goal glanced just wide.

Ultimately, however, Morocco held on for a deserved and famous victory that will be remembered for years to come.

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