Doha, Qatar – At 7:58pm, history was made.
As the crowd chanted “ole, ole, ole”, Morocco’s substitutes and technical staff urged the referee to blow the final whistle. The majority of the 44,198 people in the stands joined them.
There were whistles, cheers, applause and tears. In the middle of it all, there were prayers on the lips and in the hearts
At 7:58pm, the referee answered those calls.
At 7:58pm, those prayers were answered too.
At 7:58pm, Morocco, to the surprise of the world and to the disbelief of Moroccans themselves, sealed a stunning win over Portugal and became the first African team and the first Arab one to reach a football World Cup semi-final.
The Moroccan side – which at the start of the World Cup annoyed their opponents, then alarmed them – had finally left them aghast.
On the field, some players were hunched over. Others lay on the grass. Some ran around aimlessly in circles, hands raised in the air, not knowing how to celebrate a feat that no other side from the continent had managed in the 92-year history of World Cups.
The noise inside the stadium reached unprecedented levels. Heart rates hit dangerous peaks. Few cared about their ears, health and well-being.
“This is incredible. This is awesome,” Jalil, who travelled from Casablanca to Doha for the World Cup, said in the middle of shouting expletives to describe the state his mind was in.
“To be able to do it for the first time, it’s incredible,” he said. “I wasn’t here 36 years ago when they last reached the knockouts, but I’m here tonight when they went one better. And better than every other team from the region.”
Inside the stadium, Oussame Ramzi, a well-known Moroccan comedian, collapsed on the floor of the stand he was in, eyes welling up. He was speechless. People posed for selfies with him. He failed to utter a single word. This is what the historic win means for Moroccans.
“Wallah [by God], we feel good, good, good. We feel better than anything we’ve felt. This is great. Beyond words. Look at my friend, he’s crying,” said a friend of Ramzi’s who swiftly joined a group taking selfies with the comedian.
“First time. First time. Wow, wow. History is made,” said Lubna, who came to Qatar from Rabat just for the quarter-final. “Adios Spain, adios Portugal, adios whoever is next. We can win it. Morocco, yes.”
A huge roar went up inside the stadium as the players neared the crowd on a celebratory lap. The Viking thunderclap had given way to fist pumping and flag waving.
Gradually, the celebration moved from the stands to the foyer, then down the stairs and finally on the outer perimeter of Al Thumama Stadium in Doha. A small concert area set up by FIFA was now full of red and green, the loud music adding to the adrenaline that had been pumping overtime.
“I bought tickets for the three group matches. I’m surprised to still be here,” Sami said with a cheeky grin. “Surprised but super happy. I will be changing my flight ticket again shortly. I’m just so pleased to be here, witnessing this.”
Reem, Najma and Lubna were three more Moroccan supporters who travelled to Doha just for the match against Portugal.
“We’re going back tomorrow morning, but we’ll be back for the semi-final,” Reem said. “Work can take a back seat. In Morocco, nobody will care. We’re all high in World Cup fever.”
Morocco are unbeaten in the tournament so far with a record of four wins and a draw. Three of those four wins have come against teams ranked higher than them: Belgium, Spain and Portugal. The bar has now been set high, the expectations have reached unprecedented levels and the optimism is at its peak.
For some, though, another two wins will be more than what they could ask for, and the team has already done more than enough to win over fans.
“I think we can do anything now,” Lamia of Casablanca said. “For me, the World Cup is already won. Morocco reaching this far in the tournament, this means the entire world to me. Win or not in the semis, the hearts have been won.”