World Cup 2022: Morocco makes African history with 1-0 quarterfinal win over Portugal

Morocco's Youssef En-Nesyri celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal, at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Morocco became the first African team to advance to the semifinals of a World Cup with a 1-0 win over Portugal on Saturday morning.

The winning goal came in the final minutes of the first half when Youssef En-Nesyri skied to win a header from a towering cross by Yahya Attiat-Allah. Portugal keeper Diogo Costa tried to beat En-Nesyri to the cross but En-Nesyri outjumped everyone and thumped the ball into the back of the net.

Morocco’s improbable run to the semifinals likely ends Cristiano Ronaldo’s chances of winning a World Cup. The 37-year-old star started on the bench for the second consecutive game and came on just minutes into the second half. His best goal-scoring chance came in the 91st minute as Ronaldo got a shot on target off between two Moroccan defenders on a break. But the shot was saved by Yassine Bounou.

Ronaldo immediately left the pitch after the game and started crying as he walked down the tunnel to the Portugal locker room. His playing time in Saturday's game tied him for the most international appearances with Kuwait's Bader Al-Mutawa at 196.

Shortly after that Ronaldo chance in added time, Morocco went down to 10 men after substitute Walid Cheddira got two yellow cards in a matter of minutes. Morocco then had to defend for the final seven minutes with one fewer man than Portugal. Cheddira's red card for the second yellow was just the second red card issued to a player all tournament.

Can Morocco win the World Cup?

Morocco’s success at the 2022 World Cup can be boiled down very easily. It does not give up goals. The Moroccans have allowed just one goal through five games and that was an own goal. No one has scored against Morocco in this tournament.

That defensive excellence was why Morocco won Group F over Croatia, Belgium and Canada and how it became the fourth different African country to make the quarterfinals of a men's World Cup. Cameroon first made the quarterfinals in 1990 before Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.

It's also a reason why Morocco is a serious threat to win this World Cup. While Morocco will end up playing France in the semifinals on Wednesday, it shut down a Portugal team that scored six goals against Switzerland, and a Spain team that scored seven against Costa Rica before that. Teams with bigger stars and seemingly more offensive talent are finding it impossible to score against this Moroccan team.

Portugal's disappointment

Portugal, meanwhile, is left to rue what could have been its best chance to win the World Cup. It has made the semifinals of the World Cup just once ahead of a fourth-place finish in 2006.

Ronaldo started six of Portugal’s games in that tournament and scored a goal in a win over Iran. That World Cup established him as the focal point of Portugal’s squad. But the team has been unable to replicate that World Cup success. Portugal was eliminated in the Round of 16 in 2010 and 2018 and didn’t make it out of the group stage in 2014.

Portugal’s international success with Ronaldo has come in the Euros. Portugal beat France 1-0 in extra time to win Euro 2016. Ronaldo played just 20 minutes in that game and was forced to leave in the first half because of a knee injury.

This sure felt like Ronaldo’s last World Cup, especially after he was dropped to the bench against Switzerland and could soon find himself continuing his club soccer career outside of a power league.

And it’s impossible to quantify Saturday's loss as anything other than a disappointment for one of the world’s greatest players ever and for Portugal. Ronaldo’s penalty kick goal in the first game of the tournament against Ghana was his only goal of this World Cup, and it’s indisputable that Portugal looked a lot better with Gonçalo Ramos up front against Switzerland than it had with Ronaldo leading the front line in any of its other three games.