Man Crush Monday: The Atlas Lions of Morocco carrying hopes of Africa

by Joseph Omoniyi
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Last Saturday, the Moroccan national football team carries a heavy burden – a whole continent on its shoulders and landed it successfully in the books of world record and history after it defeated the Portuguese national team to write Africa on the semi-finals list of the World Cup for the first time ever, while also becoming the third semi-finalist not from UEFA or CONMEBOL (after the United States in 1930 and South Korea in 2002).

Youssef En-Nesyri scored in the 42nd minute to arguably end one of the greatest footballers of all time – Cristiano Ronaldo’s world cup dream and continue Morocco’s improbable run that has generated an outpouring of pride on the continent of Africa and the Arab world during the first World Cup to be staged in the Middle East.

The 37-year-old Ronaldo, one of soccer’s greatest players, didn’t start for the second straight game but came on as a substitute in the 51st minute.

Morocco will play either France or England in the semifinals.

It is a seminal moment in World Cup history, with an African nation finally advancing to the levels typically only reached by European or South American teams. 

Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) all reached the quarterfinals but got no further.

The Moroccan team, whose defense has yet to concede a goal by an opposition player at this year’s World Cup — the only one it has allowed was an own-goal — defeated a Portugal team that beat Switzerland 6-1 in the last 16 to thrust itself among the favorites.

In a game played to the backdrop of nonstop whistles and jeers by Morocco’s passionate fans, the team relied almost exclusively on counterattacks and scored from one of them.

A cross was swung in from the left and En-Nesyri leaped between Portugal goalkeeper Diogo Costa and defender Ruben Dias to head the ball into the empty net.

Ronaldo, who will be 41 by the time of the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, had been looking to reach the semifinals for only the second time after 2006.

In many respects, this result couldn’t have come at a better time when you consider that there will be nine qualifying slots available for Africa during the playing of the 2026 World Cup, which is up from the five that the continent is typically allocated every four years.

The Morocco national football team, nicknamed “the Atlas Lions”, represents Morocco in men’s international football competitions. It is controlled by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, also known as FRMF. The team’s colours are red and green. The team is a member of both FIFA and the Confederation of African Football (CAF).

Internationally, Morocco won the 1976 African Cup of Nations, two African Nations Championships, and the FIFA Arab Cup once. They have participated in the FIFA World Cup six times. They made history in 1986 when they were the first African national team to finish top of a group at the World Cup. However, they narrowly lost to eventual runners-up West Germany 1–0.

The Atlas Lions were ranked 10th in the FIFA World Rankings in April 1998. They were ranked by FIFA as the top African national team for three consecutive years, from 1997 to 1999. As of October 2022, Morocco is ranked as the 22nd-best national team in the world.

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