By Emre Dogan
DOHA, Qatar (AA) – As the race for football’s biggest prize heats up, the last eight nations in the running include most of the usual suspects, barring one jarring – and much celebrated – exception: Morocco.
The North Africans did the unthinkable when they dumped out mighty Spain, one of the pre-tournament favorites, in a penalty shootout win that will live on forever in World Cup folklore.
With his nerveless “Panenka” penalty on Tuesday night, Achraf Hakimi rewrote footballing history, making Morocco the first Arab country to ever reach the World Cup quarterfinals.
The Atlas Lions have also done Africa proud, becoming the first country from the continent in the last eight since Ghana’s remarkable run 12 years ago.
Before Ghana, Senegal and Cameroon reached the World Cup quarterfinals, but no African country has progressed any further, leaving another milestone in Morocco’s sights.
Hakimi was, by no means, Morocco’s only star on an unforgettable night.
His crowning moment only came after Abdelhamid Sabiri and Hakim Ziyech dispatched their spot kicks with aplomb, while goalkeeper Yassine Bounou etched his name in history by saving two of the three Spanish penalties.
For a spot in the semifinals, Morocco will face a Portugal team buzzing with confidence after a scintillating 6-1 hammering of Switzerland.
Whoever goes through will come up against either defending champions France or England, who were both clinical and convincing in their Round of 16 victories over Poland and Senegal.
On the other side of the draw, the Netherlands have the unenviable task of stopping Lionel Messi and Argentina, while 2018 finalists Croatia face a rampant Brazil side that has given us some of this World Cup’s best goals – and goal celebrations.
- Spain’s shootout misery
Painful as the loss to Morocco may be, Spain is no stranger to heartbreaking penalty shootout defeats.
Just last year in July, Spain stumbled against Italy in the semifinals of EURO 2020, losing 4-2 on penalties.
In World Cups, they have now lost knockout matches on penalties on four different occasions: 1986 vs Belgium, 2002 vs South Korea, 2018 vs Russia, and 2022 vs Morocco.
The defeat to Morocco, however, holds the ignominious distinction of being their only World Cup shootout where Spain failed to score a single penalty.
- Japan’s football and fans win hearts
Japan’s run to the last 16 was nothing short of spectacular.
Drawn with veritable giants Spain and Germany, their prospects of progressing beyond the group stage were considered bleak.
Hajime Moriyasu and his charges clearly thought otherwise, putting in exceptional performances to clinch brilliant wins against both Spain and Germany.
Japan finished top of Group E and were joined in the next round by Spain, while Germany took an unexpected early flight back home.
Along with their football, Japan’s fans also made their mark in Qatar.
After every game, no matter a win or a loss, Japanese fans spent time picking up rubbish in the stands, an exceptional gesture that not only made them viral sensations but also inspired others to follow suit.
- Golden Boot battle
Heading into the Dec. 9-10 quarterfinals, French sensation Kylian Mbappe leads the pack in the race for the Golden Boot, the award for the World Cup’s top scorer.
He has five goals in four matches, two ahead of a raft of players also still in the competition.
Lionel Messi, Richarlison, Goncalo Ramos, Olivier Giroud, Bukayo Saka, Cody Gakpo, and Marcus Rashford all have three goals, and will be raring to raise their tallies.
Portugal’s Ramos is the latest and most surprising entrant to the race.
The 21-year-old Benfica striker was handed a start in place of captain Cristiano Ronaldo against Switzerland, and repaid Fernando Santos’ faith with a blistering hattrick, the first of this World Cup.
* Emre Asikci in Istanbul contributed to this story