How Morocco’s Atlas Lions roared into World Cup quarter-finals

Moroccan fans celebrate at Education City Stadium after their team rewrote its footballing history on Tuesday.

Celebrations after the penalty shootout win over Spain [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar – The anticipation built up as Achraf Hakimi stepped forward to take a penalty that could rewrite Morocco’s footballing history.

The teams were inseparable after 120 minutes. As Hakimi got hold of the ball, Morocco had the upper hand with the penalties despite the Spanish crowd trying its best to distract the penalty-takers from behind the goal with camera flashes.

Morocco had scored two. Spain had missed two. If Hakimi put this one in the back of the net, Morocco were through to their first World Cup quarter-final.

The crowd was up on its feet, some standing on the seats. Nobody was sitting except in the press box and VIP area.

Moroccan substitutes gathered the flags that the crowd has thrown to them. Celebrations were reaching a boiling point. It could happen at any moment. The nine by the centre circle pulled each other closer. Their grip was tight. Their hearts were beating faster.

The finish line was in sight, the victory was theirs.

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Celebrating success [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Hakimi marked his run-up. If he scored, his country of birth was out of the World Cup.

He scored.

The sea of red erupted and Morocco stepped into unchartered territory. They are in a World Cup quarter-final for the first time after six attempts.

“It’s all the happiness of the world combined in this result. We’re all so, so, so happy,” a group of Moroccan fans at Education City Stadium shouted at the top of their lungs after the match ended.

“We were always confident of a win. Because we’re from Morocco. We’re lions,” Iman, originally from Casablanca but living in Qatar, said, referring to the team’s nickname Atlas Lions.

The celebrations moved onto the foyer, then the stairs and then finally onto the outer perimeters of the stadium. But the Moroccan crowd was not done yet. Honking cars, waving flags, singing and shouting, relieved but rapturous, brimming with sheer ecstasy and in a frenzy, they danced on.

“I’m so, so proud to be Moroccan right now, wow, wow, wow. It’s amazing, it’s the best feeling in the world right now,” Khadija said. “I can’t wait for the next match. We’re staying in Qatar. We’re not going home.”

morocco vs spain
Moroccan fans were over the moon after their team’s win over Spain [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Spotted in the sea of Moroccan supporters were some Spain fans who were quietly making their way out of the stadium.

“Espana, Espana, this is the way to the airport, Espana,” taunted a group of Moroccan fans before hugging their Spanish counterparts.

For Firdous, she has a flight back to Morocco on Thursday morning. But she said she will be back for the quarter-final on Saturday.

“This is huge, it’s massive,” said Firdous. “This is an accomplishment that Morocco has never achieved. We’ve been waiting for this our entire lives. This is just the beginning. We’re going all the way.

“This morning, I knew we have something special in store for us today. And this is it. I’ve watched all of Morocco’s matches in the World Cup. Tomorrow, I’m going back to Morocco but I’ll come back for the next match. This is a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the team.”

Mohammad Karam, who could barely talk after enjoying the “match of his life”, could not believe what had transpired on the field.

“I still can’t believe it. I’m dreaming. It was a lot of nerves, a lot of tension, a lot of emotions. But we did it. We’re in the quarter-finals.”

Joy for the Moroccan fans [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera