Morocco subs strike late to upset Belgium and go top of Group F

North Africans secure just third ever World Cup win as Abedlamid Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhal score

First to the historic Morocco goals, with Belgium’s messy collapse to follow, but Kevin De Bruyne was on the money: the Red Devils looked elderly in contrast to Walid Regragui’s well-drilled machine, as Abdelhamid Sabiri scored a pickpocket’s dream goal before Zakaria Aboukhlal’s late strike split Group F wide open.

The pulsating Moroccan crowd, with deafening noise tumbling around Al Thumama, made the 43,738 attendance feel like the entire North African kingdom had found a way into Qatar. Simply put, they pulled a Giants Stadium on the Belgians, filling the isolated surrounds from early afternoon.

Beforehand, De Bruyne, the best Belgium player to ever lace boots, made categorical comments about the current generation, the best team Belgium has ever produced, being washed up.

“No chance, we’re too old,” De Bruyne told The Guardian, when asked if Belgium can win the World Cup, and the Manchester City midfielder even doubled down: “I think our chance was 2018. We have a good team, but it is ageing. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018.”


Confoundingly, Roberto Martínez knew nothing of De Bruyne’s defeatist stance until after Morocco, led by Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech, tore them asunder.

“That’s the first time I hear those comments,” said Martínez, Belgium football’s chief architect since 2016, “so clearly nobody knew of those comments.”

Well, De Bruyne knew.

“When you are in a World Cup the players are asked to speak to the media officially for hours and hours every day so 90 per cent of things are positive and then the moment you have one or two lines and they don’t speak in context. I think we are professionals. We know how to perform away from what is said,” Martínez added.

“The language of the team is really healthy, really focused, they are working really, really hard. I don’t think any comments will affect the team.”

Martínez was also informed that when journalist Simon Hattenstone offered De Bruyne the chance to adopt a more diplomatic tone, the 31-year-old gave the Russia 2018 quote.

“When you ask something to a player, he is allowed to give his views,” Martínez replied. “I think we are experienced enough, we have been together for six years now. I don’t think the comments will help us to win, only attract us to win.”

Croatia will test this theory on Tuesday.

“Maybe it was a bit of a double bluff, maybe for their position to get comfortable, you never know,” the Spaniard added. “What happens behind the scenes is all that matters.”

When Martinez was asked to explain why De Bruyne has failed to perform to his dizzyingly high standards in Qatar, especially in comparison to Florentina’s brilliant midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, he responded: “Well, we haven’t seen the best Belgium yet. I don’t think it is just Kevin.”

Tellingly, Martínez also said that his players “played with fear” as this defeat, on top of a fortunate victory over Canada leaves them facing elimination – a jarring scenario for the golden generation of Belgium footballers who are supposed to be in their prime.

Like De Bruyne, Eden Hazard is 31, with his chance to score drawing a fine save from Morocco’s late goalkeeping replacement Munir Mohamedi. Romelu Lukaku, who was ineffective off the bench, is only 29 while Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is 30.

Defeat can be laid at the feet of Courtois, after he was exposed by Sabiri’s clever free-kick and Hakim Ziyech’s earlier effort was harshly ruled offside by VAR’s artificial intelligence.

None of Belgium’s issues should take away from this red letter day for Moroccan football. A volcano has threatened to erupt since their first World Cup appearance in 1970. Another hint came at Mexico ‘86 when they reached the last 16, and they have bid to host every other tournament since, but afterwards coach Walid Regragui tried to dampen euphoric scenes as millions of Moroccans along the Atlantic beaches from Taghazout to Essaouira and into the labyrinths of Marrakech and capital Rabat took to the streets in celebration.

Two shirts are visible at every corner in every Moroccan town; Messi’s PSG top and Hakimi the Paris based defender in Moroccan red.

“When you give Hakim love, when you give him confidence he will die for you,” said coach Walid Regragui.

Regragui knows the next step is the hardest, as harnessing the outpouring of joy and expectation must be translated into overrunning Canada – who see out the tournament after losing to Croatia – next Tuesday.

“We played against maybe the best team in the world,” he said, “with their big players. We wanted to stop them finding De Bruyne and Hazard.

“But we are not happy with four points. We want to qualify from the group. We are a very difficult team to beat, but that is not enough for us. Inshallah.”

The coach, who nimbly danced from English to Spanish to French and three separate Arabic dialects, was firm that Sabiri catching Courtois unawares for the first goal was pre-planned.

“We saw at the near post that Courtois is a little over-confident, he is a very tall goalkeeper and he leaves that space. You saw what happened.”

The whole world saw it too.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent