Azzedine Ounahi helps Morocco make the impossible a vivid reality

Morocco were almost there. The whistles had intensified, if that was humanly possible, and Walid Regragui needed to convey one last point. They would play with 10 men for the final few minutes and the manager called Azzedine Ounahi, the lungs and fizzing brain of his midfield, to the touchline.

A word in the ear, perhaps audible but quite possibly not, concluded with a shake of the shoulders, a slap on the back, a physical way of demanding an extra iota of focus before Portugal pass, pass, passed their way through the thirds once more.

Ounahi needed no wake-up call. Soon he was being hoisted aloft by a jubilant group of Morocco’s backroom staff, mobbed by those who had watched and cajoled as the impossible gradually become vivid.

Make no mistake, this was one of the most significant events in World Cup history: a glass ceiling breached, an enduring doubt cast aside, a dream made real for tens of millions. It was a moment for Africa; a moment for the Arab world that has united so joyfully behind the team. It was a moment, too, for a tournament whose dark context can never be forgotten. If Qatar’s showpiece has given us a moment to savour with scant reservation it was indisputably this.

Jawad El Yamiq caught the mood. The Valladolid centre-back had been outstanding as Nayef Aguerd’s deputy, throwing himself at every desperate Portugal sortie. When Pepe, an irate figure afterwards, headed wide with the last meaningful action he cradled the veteran’s head and kissed it.

It was El Yamiq who collected a half-and-half flag, divided between the Moroccan and Qatari insignia, while bodies tore around him; Morocco ran as one to the crowd with the standard prominently in their midst. The image spoke volumes.

It testified to the enhanced relationship Qatar has appeared to broker between itself and others in the region in recent weeks. Doha feels nothing like Casablanca, Rabat or any other north African hub, but there are more than enough cultural similarities to mean Morocco have been embraced as siblings, a noticeably larger proportion of locals in the crowd pulling in their direction. Whether this month can viably be cast as a longer-term triumph of diplomacy is questionable and the optics are certainly ripe to be exploited. The footballing triumph it staged here, though, is beyond dispute.

Where to start in assessing a dogged yet vibrant, daring and consistently surprising Morocco? Probably with Ounahi, who shone against Spain and earned admiring words from Luis Enrique. If there are no more real unknowns in a World Cup knockout stage, he was the closest thing: a 22-year-old No 8 who was playing third-tier football in France for Avranches 18 months ago.

Angers, of Ligue 1, will take a pretty penny for him should they wish. He was everywhere, bolting the door while breaking the lines, and an injury-hit team came with him.

Only the keenest follower would have recognised Yahia Attiyat Allah, a left-back from local club Wydad AC, before this tie. He created the winner with an arcing cross that teased Diogo Costa into fatal indecision; Youssef En-Nesyri, hanging in the air for an eternity, had missed two earlier headers but was not going to fluff this. A frozen moment in time yielded an explosion for the ages.

Perhaps the mix of familiar and obscure is what served a supremely drilled Morocco best. It goes for their style too. Nobody else resembles them and some of the snobbery emanating from Spain felt offensive after watching them, invariably encouraged by Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal, extricate play from tight defensive situations with devastating deftness and control.

One Ziyech backheel before half-time that released Ounahi, at least until the latter was hauled back, drew gasps. Morocco could lump it: El Yamiq had no qualms about doing that, nor did Romain Saïss’s injury replacement Achraf Dari. Within a rigorous structure that they work the ball via a zest that has few parallels.

For once Cristiano Ronaldo was a footnote, even if Fernando Santos offered him time to steal the thunder. Ronaldo had winced upon seeing En-Nesyri score; he drew a save from Bono, the remarkable Morocco goalkeeper, but the defining image of his outing was that of Badr Benoun, a Qatar-based substitute of moderate pedigree, come on and snap into him with a clean, meaningful tackle.

It may have meant more than anyone could know. Will we see Ronaldo in a Portugal shirt again? Or in any shirt, for that matter? His future will hang like a yawning, vacant space above this footballing epoch until its resolution. It is hard to imagine him representing his country again after Santos’s public display of moving on and the sight of him sloping back down the tunnel, eyes moist, may have presented an answer.

Perhaps an unshackled Portugal will still present a fearsome proposition at Euro 2024. There was no lack of perspiration: Bruno Fernandes struck the bar but tried too much, his passing radar increasingly suited to a rejected Hollywood script. No saviour presented himself, and that felt right.

Morocco could yet need inspiration if a battered, bruised and genuinely brilliant team is to reach the final. All bets are off when you reach uncharted waters. “You have the small team and the big team but when you are the small team you have to believe,” Regragui said.

It would have been an apt line to offer Ounahi at the death. Morocco, though, are small no longer.