This squad has no Abdelmajid Dolmy, Mohammed El Haddaoui, Aziz Bouderbala, Badou Zaki or Mohamed Timoumi, but in Hakim Ziyek, Morocco has a general capable of leading his troops to victory against any opponent.
That, he did yesterday, when he led the Atlas Lions to a stunning 2-0 defeat of Belgium, a team that finished as the third best side in Russia four years ago.
It would have been 3-0 but for VAR, which overruled what would have been Morocco’s opening goal on the offside rule.
Yesterday’s game at the Al Thumama Stadium gave Morocco’s supporters, and in deed other Africans in the arena, opportunity to raise the roof and ‘Buga’ in style.
The game exposed age lines in Roberto Martinez’s ‘golden generation’ of Belgian players, but that should not detract at all from Morocco’s deserved achievement in beating a side featuring world-class talents such as Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois.
Morocco join Saudi Arabia and Japan, the conquerors of Argentina and Germany respectively, in upsetting the old order, having already claimed a creditable goalless draw themselves against 2018 finalists Croatia in their opening game.
The goals came from second-half substitutes Abdelhamid Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhlal, after Hakim Ziyech had one disallowed just before half-time.
Belgium are not out of it, but may now need to beat Croatia to progress to the last 16.
With Nayef Aguerd and PSG defender, Achraf Hakimi, running the Belgian defence ragged, Ziyech’s left foot proved too hard for Belgium as they resorted to foul play to try to stop the Chelsea man.
What would have been Morocco’s first goal when Ziyeck’s whipped free-kick from the right found its way into the goal, was disallowed after the technology detected captain Romain Saiss was in an offside position, and Mexican referee Cesar Ramos judged he was obstructing Courtois’ view of the ball as it sailed past him, and therefore ‘active’.
The setback did not derail Morocco and they started the second half brightly with Ziyech again calling Courtois into action, before El Kajoui had to save smartly at his near post to keep out an Eden Hazard shot.
Morocco took the lead in the 73rd minute, with a goal strikingly similar to the one disallowed earlier, as Sabiri curled in a right-footed free-kick from the left and it found its way past Courtois at the near post. Again Saiss was obstructing the Real Madrid goalkeeper’s view, but he was onside this time.
Belgium brought on Romelu Lukaku, who had not been deemed fit enough to start because of a hamstring problem, as Martinez chased the game.
However, Morocco soon started celebrating again when Aboukhlal sealed an incredible win when he fired in at Courtois’ near post from Ziyech’s cut-back in injury time.