DOHA, Qatar >> These really are pinch-yourself times for Morocco: A first ever spot in the quarterfinals of a World Cup — the first to take place in the Arab world, no less — and now a meeting with Portugal and its superstar striker, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Because Ronaldo has again managed to steal the spotlight in his inimitable way, even bumping Morocco’s historic run to the last eight off the top of the agenda ahead of Saturday’s narrative-laden match.
Will he start, or won’t he? That’s the big question being asked about Ronaldo after he was dropped by Portugal coach Fernando Santos for the 6-1 win over Switzerland in the round of 16 on Tuesday.
Not only was the five-time world player of the year relegated to the bench, his replacement — 21-year-old Goncalo Ramos — scored a hat trick to leave Santos with quite the selection dilemma against Morocco.
The announcement of Portugal’s team some 90 minutes before the game is keenly awaited as Ronaldo prepares to play in the quarterfinals of the World Cup for just the second time in his glittering career. Portugal is at this stage for only the third time, perhaps surprising given the talent to have come from the country down the years.
As for Morocco, the nation is in uncharted territory after becoming only the fourth African country to reach the quarterfinals at soccer’s biggest tournament, after Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010). None of them reached the semifinals. Morocco is also the only team from outside Europe or South America to make it to the last eight in Qatar.
Its penalty-shootout victory over Spain in the last 16 sparked wild celebrations not just among its many fans in Qatar but at home and also in the Moroccan diaspora of around 5 million people spread mostly around Europe, which has united behind the World Cup run of the team nicknamed the “Atlas Lions.”
Morocco fans poured into the streets of European cities to celebrate the team’s passage to the quarterfinals, which came after Morocco advanced from a group containing second-ranked Belgium and 2018 runner-up Croatia.
The team is coached by Walid Regragui, who was born in France, and 14 of the 26 players in the squad were born abroad — the highest proportion for any team at a World Cup being held in the Middle East for the first time in its 92-year history.
The Arab world’s standard bearer, Morocco is in the quarterfinals on merit, too. The team has only conceded one goal — and that was an own-goal against Canada — and is proving so well-organized, with a sturdy back four headlined by Achraf Hakimi, a dedicated midfield anchorman in Sofyan Amrabat, two mercurial wingers in Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal, and a striker in Youssef En-Nesyri who occupies defenses with his relentless work rate.
Three key players might be struggling to be healthy enough to play against Portugal, though. Amrabat said he played with a back injury requiring painkilling injections in the match against Spain, during which captain Romain Saiss finished the game with his leg bandaged up after treatment and fellow center back Nayef Aguerd hobbled off in tears with an apparent thigh injury.
Portugal doesn’t appear to have such problems, with Santos’ squad depth so impressive that he could afford to leave players like Ronaldo, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Neves on the bench against Switzerland after they started every group game.
Santos said he picks his team according to the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent but it will be a surprise if he makes any changes after a match that thrust Portugal among the tournament favorites.
Even if he starts as a substitute again, Ronaldo — playing in his likely last World Cup — is expected to see some time on the field. Given the drama constantly surrounding him, he’s sure to be a talking point whatever happens.