AL KHOR, Qatar — Theo Hernández’s flying goal could have snapped Morocco out of its month-long reverie. It came so early on this Wednesday night of history and zeal, after just four minutes and 38 seconds. It could have silenced the piercing whistles and rousing roars that accompanied Morocco to the Al Bayt Stadium for a World Cup semifinal, because it could have proved that France was superior; that order was being restored; that a France-Argentina final was destiny.
But over the 85 minutes that followed, instead, Morocco proved that it belonged.
It couldn’t quite topple the defending champs and extend its magical run. It bowed out of the 2022 tournament with a 2-0 loss, to that 5th-minute Hernández goal and then a late French clincher. But it did so with pride, surrounded by cacophonous noise, with frenetic soccer that had France — France! — hanging on for dear life.
This second semifinal, after Argentina’s rousing victory on Tuesday, was billed as many things. It was upstart versus bleublood. It was colonized versus colonizer. It was Africa versus Europe. It was friends versus friends, though tinged with uneasiness stemming from France’s longstanding marginalization of its North African populations.
But really, it was 11 soccer players versus 11 soccer players. It was one multicultural team against another. And given their respective pedigrees, their statures, their resources, their incomes and their pre-tournament odds, it was remarkable.
France scored early, and had more first-half chances, but then receded. It had to repel Moroccan attack after Moroccan attack, each one of which was willed forward by tens of thousands of red-clad fans.
The quasi-home team had a penalty shout. It had threatening attacks foiled by a lack of final-third precision. It closed the first half with a flurry, and Jawad El Yamiq nearly scored the goal of the tournament with a bicycle kick. French keeper Hugo Lloris just barely pushed the ball onto the post and kept it out.
Morocco had started wobbly in a back-five, with captain Romain Saiss at the center of it battling an injury. Once he was removed after 20 minutes, Morocco went to a standard 4-3-3, and began to boss France’s two-man midfield.
The bossing continued after halftime. France started on its heels and, for what felt like ages, couldn’t steady itself. Ibrahima Konaté was immense in the center of the French defense.
The defending champs, though, found their footing midway through the half. Marcus Thuram came on and helped change the game, giving France a three-pronged threat on the counter. And Kylian Mbappé, who’d been bullied out of the game for 75 minutes by some crunching Morocco challenges, put the Moroccans away. With some demonic dribbling, he carved out room for a shot, which was deflected right into the path of Randal Kolo Muani. And that was that.
The outcome sends France on to meet Argentina in a final for the ages. It will pit the best team of the past two World Cups against the greatest player ever. Lionel Messi will go in search of his first title. France will go in search of its second in a row, and would be the first men’s team since 1962 Brazil to repeat as champs.
Wednesday’s 90 minutes, though, were about Morocco. The Atlas Lions had already inspired millions of people — Africans, Arabs, Muslims, and migrants all across the globe. They did more of the same here in Al Khor.
They had already been the first African team to reach a World Cup semifinal, and the first Arab team to reach a quarterfinal. They oh-so-nearly set the bar even higher.
They didn’t, but even as the closing minutes became closing seconds, and the dream elapsed, the drums kept banging and the chants kept ringing.
Sunday will be the World Cup final of destiny, and perhaps of Messi. But this entire month has been the World Cup of Morocco.