Morocco won its first World Cup match since 1998 – and its third ever – securing a sensational 2-0 victory over heavyweight Belgium to ensure that it can still qualify for the knockout stage for the second time in its history.
The Atlas Lions were roared on by raucous support inside the stadium as they overcame a disallowed goal on the stroke of halftime to score two glorious strikes in the second half.
First, Abdelhamid Sabiri curled in a perfectly-weighted free kick from the left-hand wing, bamboozling Thibaut Courtois, before Zakaria Aboukhlal sealed his side’s famous win.
After an underwhelming performance in its opening 1-0 victory against Canada, Belgium started more fluently but still seemed a shadow of its usual self as Morocco looked to build on its own solid start to the World Cup following a scoreless draw against Croatia.
And it seemed as if Morocco had found the early breakthrough on the stroke of halftime, as Hakim Ziyech’s free kick rocketed past Courtois, though it was later ruled out by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) for offside.
The two sides headed down the tunnel level at 0-0, but this did not quell the support of the thousands of Moroccan fans whose chants rang around the stadium all game.
And they erupted in celebration midway through the second half when Sabiri’s free-kick found the back of the net, putting Morocco within reach of the win.
Belgium offered little in response and Ziyech weaved through the Belgian defense in injury time, passed the ball back into the box where Aboukhlal chipped it into the back of the net.
When the final whistle blew minutes later, several Moroccan players fell to their knees – some bowed their heads in prayer, some simply collapsed in exhaustion – before they embraced each other in celebration.
Morocco is now top of Group F on four points after stunning the No. 2 ranked side in the world.
Earlier in the day, Costa Rica shocked Japan with a 1-0 win, thanks to an 81st minute goal from Keysher Fuller, as it kept its hopes of qualifying for the World Cup knockout stages alive with a crucial three points to pull level with Spain and Japan in Group E.
Japan, fresh from a surprise victory over Germany that has given them a real chance of reaching the knockout stages, could not find a foothold in this game despite Costa Rica still licking its wounds from a chastening 7-0 defeat against Spain.
It was a cagey, underwhelming opening first 45 minutes marked by untidy passing from both sides as neither could muster a single shot on target.
Straight after half-time, however, the pace immediately lifted with the introduction of two new faces for Japan – Takuma Asano and Hiroki Ito.
Hidemasa Morita shimmied his way to the penalty box and lined up a shot on goal that was batted away by Keylor Navas.
Japan continued to press but could not capitalize and the game soon settled back into the tepid rhythm of the first half.
Then, against the run of play, Costa Rica capitalized on a mistake on the edge of the box and Fuller rifled the ball into the top corner of the net, past the outstretched hand of Shuichi Gonda, for his side’s first shot on target and first goal of the tournament.
It silenced the Samurai Blue fans for the first time, whose current of singing and drums had swept around the stadium for much of the game, and buoyed the Costa Rican support as their own chants of “Oe Oe Ticos!” grew louder.
With just nine minutes of regular time remaining, Japan saw its hopes of sealing a spot in the knockout stages slip away, and a chance late on with the ball ricocheting around the box was marshalled by Navas as Costa Rica held on for the win.
With Spain and Germany playing later on Sunday, both teams’ fates will be decided in the last round of fixtures.
Croatia avoided joining the list of defeated favorites on Sunday, beating Canada 4-1 to record its first win in Qatar.
The 2018 World Cup finalist had to come from a goal behind after Alphonso Davies scored in 68 seconds – the fastest goal at the tournament so far – to give Canada the lead, but Croatia hit back with goals from Andrej Kramaric and Marko Livaja before half-time.
Kramaric got his second goal of the game 20 minutes from time and Lovro Majer added the fourth in injury time to secure Croatia’s win as Canada exits the World Cup with two defeats in two matches.