Doha, Qatar – The atmosphere before kick-off was electric.
Fans of the Atlas Lions, as Morocco’s national team are known, had gathered early outside the 44,000-capacity Al Thumama Stadium on Sunday, hoping to experience a historic upset.
There was a carnival-like atmosphere with a DJ playing Arabic songs to get the crowd warmed up for the World Cup’s Group F clash.
Morocco, ranked 22 in the FIFA standings, were taking on the star-studded Red Devils of Belgium, one of the tournament favourites and ranked second in the world.
“No one gave us a chance. Everyone said Belgium will humiliate us. But we beat them,” Othmane Benjelloun said, fighting back tears after Morocco stunned the Belgians 2-0.
“This is a dream for us. We were brave and did not sit back. We believed in our team and our players felt our strong support. What you see here is history,” he added, tears finally streaming down his cheeks.
The showdown was Morocco’s 18th World Cup match and their 14th against European opposition. The North Africans have won two and drawn six of their last 11 World Cup group-stage matches against European countries.
The last World Cup Morocco won was against Scotland in 1998.
The Belgium lineup was filled with household names: Manchester City’s midfield maestro Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings in the middle of the pitch; Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois, the reigning winner of the Yashin trophy given to the best-ranked goalkeeper in the world; and Courtois’s teammate Eden Hazard leading the attack.
But that did not deter the thousands of Atlas Lions fans clad in green and red – or their team. They felt it was their moment. They cheered, sang, and waved the blue-and-green national flag without a break. The noise inside the arena was eardrum-splitting.
“Amazing day. Our tactics were spot. We attacked at the right time and defended when we needed to. We got them tired,” said Adel Ez-Zaidi, who came from Frankfurt in Germany to watch the match.
“All day you could feel today will be special day. We were very positive even before kick-off. This means everything to all of us. It is like a very good dream. You don’t want it to end or wake up from it,” he added before rushing off to join fellow fans at the entertainment zone outside the stadium.
From the first whistle, it was clear the Moroccan players were up for the challenge of overcoming one of the tournament’s most feared teams.
They flew into the tackles and closed down the Belgians at every opportunity. Achraf Hakimi, the Paris Saint-Germain right-back, set the tone with his lung-busting runs, his long strides covering every inch of the green turf as they sought to break down the Belgian back line.
“These players, with their performance today, showed how much they care and how much it means to play for our country,” said Hanan Rahho, who flew in from Neuss in Germany for the showpiece. “Hakimi was everywhere. With players like we can go far. Anything is possible. It is very promising. I will not be surprised if we win the World Cup.”
“It is the best feeling ever. We didn’t just win but showed we deserved to win against a great team. I feel like crying,” she added, putting her hands over her face.
It was not only Moroccans who were rooting for the Atlas Lions to overcome Belgium. There were plenty of Tunisian, Palestinian, Saudi and Omani flags in the crowd cheering for the North Africans.
“It is wonderful what they did. I’m very proud of them. No one will ever forget this day. No single Arab will forget,” said Imad Azaizeh, a Palestinian who travelled from Dammam in Saudi Arabia to support Morocco.
“They are the dark horse of the World Cup. They can achieve anything they want and we will support them no matter what.”
Next up for Morocco is Canada on Thursday, and the fans celebrating at Al Thumama Stadium can’t wait for the showdown.
“Canada will not want to face us after they see how we played today. No team will want to face us. We are the lions from the Atlas Mountains,” Benjelloun said, wiping the tears of joy.