The Belgium fans could literally touch Abdelhamid Sabiri when he lined up behind the free-kick a few yards beside the corner flag. The spot was teasingly close to where the Belgium supporters had encamped, with their drums and bagpipes. So loud was the rattle of mallets in drums that Sabiri would have turned deaf. But he cleared out all the noise from inside and outside and curled the ball to the near post of Thibaut Courtois to give Morocco the 2-0 win.
To beat the Belgians, he needed the alignment of the precise ascent, accurate bend and pinpoint dip. Even if everything fell in place, Courtois is a master, who usually reads the intentions of the striker (of the ball) as if he has a secret access code to the mind. Here, though, there was only one road Sabiri could have taken to beat Courtois, It was to lift, bend and dip. He did exactly that, and Courtois reacted woefully late to palm the ball into his net. He was unusually leaden-footed and detached.
He was woefully positioned to start with and his reflexes snapped. Even bizarrely, there was no one guarding the near-post. There again was the indomitable Romain Saiss as a decoy off-side of sorts to distract the Belgian ‘keeper, but this time he was played on-side and the goal stood. Unlike before the half time when Hakim Ziyech’s free-kick goal was chalked off because Saiss was in an offside position and interfering with the play.
Sabiri, the Germany-bred Moroccan, knelt to the pitch, offered a prayer and sharpened his ears to the direction of the Belgian voice. He could hear the drop of a pin; the Belgian fans were muted; their players were left ashen-faced. There was time yet to equalise, or perhaps wake up stifled creativity of Kevin de Bruyne and out-score Morocco —15 minutes plus an eternity of added time is sometimes adequate.
But instead, Belgium unravelled, making a mockery of the No 2 ranking FIFA has ascribed to them. Morocco, riding the goal-vibe attacked with abandon, threatened to humiliate Belgium, and in the end nicked a second goal in stoppage time from a delicious first-time clip off the boot of Zakaria Aboukhlal. The celebrations were quieter, for by then Morocco knew that their famed European opponents had neither the energy nor the imagination to produce what would have been the comeback of the tournament.
The script was familiar—Morocco coach Walid Regragui made two substitutes and both scored. Belgium, like Argentina and Germany, never recovered from the shock of the first goal. But it differed from the other big shocks of the tournament in that this was a match where they utterly bossed the Belgians, out-running, out-muscling and out-thinking them. That Morocco waited this long to break the deadlock was the only unsolved mystery.
Much before the substitutes sizzled, there was Hakim Ziyech who made the ageing Belgium backline feel their age. Under-utilised at Chelsea, he sparkled in the Morocco shirts. Ziyech was an incessant threat, with not only his pace but also his vast range of tricks. He would feign and step-over, drop his shoulder or shift his hips to drag the defender the wrong way.
Unsurprisingly, he produced the best chances for Morocco. None was clear-cut as an opportunity in the 35th minute when he jinked past Thorgan Hazard and slit into the inside right channel and pulled a rasping half-volley over the crossbar. A few minutes before this, he was the provider, the labour of another darting run, but Selim Amalla bludgeoned the ball into the stands.
Then a minute into stoppage time of the first half, Ziyech burst past Thorgan Hazard to the edge of the box, whereupon the Belgium midfielder stretched his leg out and dragged Ziyech to the ground. Ziyech arrowed the ensuing free-kick into the net and celebrated riotously. Only for the VAR to deem it an off-side as Roman Saiss was in an off-side position and judged to interfere with the play. Morocco were heartbroken, Belgium gasped.
They continued to tease and torment. In one instance, he halted his full-pelt run, lured Axel Witsel into him and dabbed the ball from his right foot to the left and unpacked a cracking shot from 25 yards, but Courtois tipped the ball away. That the Belgian goalkeeper’s step-over, of no particular relevance or consequence, was perhaps the most ingenious piece of football Belgium dished out in the first hour captured the staleness of Belgium’s game.
The trusted firm of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, a combined age of 67, is creaking and cracking like the wooden flooring of an old house. Thomas Meunier is 31 and never been the most mobile of defenders. Timothy Castagne has been laid low by a string of opportunities missed. Intriguingly, the coach Roberto Martinez forsook his three-man defence fixation with a conventional back-four.
Though Martinez likes his full-back to maraud upfield, Castagne and Meunier were more conservative in running full-steam. Often, Morocco’s pacy wide-men would carve them open and induce last-gasp tackles and retrieves. There were other worrying signs of decay too. The midfield pivot of Amadou Onana and Axel Witsel is bland, forcing Kevin de Bruyne to play deeper. And upfront, Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi are not the most surgical of No 9s. Batshuayi, at least, was diligent in making the runs and pulling defenders into spaces. But Lukaku was awful, to put it mildly.
What would hurt Belgium is not that they lost the match, but how badly they lost. Belgium might still go through to the last 16, though there looms a game against Croatia, or maybe even beyond, the wondrous talent of de Bruyne could be unleashed on the world but the (hypothetical) golden generation is no longer gold. Not even perhaps bronze. Perhaps it never was as golden as it was projected to be. The golden boys on Sunday at the Al Thumama Stadium were the Moroccans.