After three days of chalk, the 2022 World Cup finally found time for another surprise.
From Saturday through Monday, every single favorite prevailed in their Round of 16 knockout match. All of them, save Croatia, won handily. Teams from Africa, North America, and Asia all fell to old European powers or the usual South American juggernauts. The heavyweights were demonstrating their power. The bullies were methodically rounding up the upstarts and wedgie-ing them into oblivion. It was fun while it lasted. The big boys would take it from here.
Except on Tuesday, an underdog finally escaped. The Atlas Lions of Morocco hung tough for 120 scoreless minutes with heavily favored Spain before defeating the 2010 champions on penalties. It became just the fourth African nation to reach the World Cup quarterfinals, and the first since Ghana in 2010. Backed by a boisterous crowd that whistled and jeered each of Spain’s 1,019 passes, a Moroccan defense that has allowed just one goal all tournament kept its nerve in the face of Spain’s dominance of the ball.
For Spain, whom hosts Russia knocked out in the same round on penalties at the last World Cup, it was more of the same. The Spaniards passed and passed and passed, nibbling around the edges of Morocco’s densely packed formation but only rarely threatening to breach it. The favorite’s young, mononymed midfielders (they sound like David Letterman bombing at the Oscars: Gavi, Pedri. Pedri, Gavi), were largely neutered by Morocco’s effective compression of the midfield space. Neither could make up the difference. Gavi—who at 18, is the youngest player to participate in a World Cup knockout round match since Pele in 1958—played like a toddler, often collapsing to the floor as he attempted to speed up, sometimes at the slightest touch from a Moroccan player to earn a foul, sometimes directly into a Moroccan player to concede one. Pedri, 20, is a wizard whose quality is apparent even in the smallest moments of the game. Watching his precision when receiving a pass and the speed with which he whirls to face upfield are like watching a baseball player with a beautiful swing: You don’t have to see the results to know that it’s going to be good. But not good enough here.
Spain’s wingers lost the battle with Morocco’s talented fullbacks, Noussair Mazraoui on the left and Achraf Hakimi on the right. Spain looked better when it brought on subs Nico Williams and Ansu Fati, meant to run at the tired Moroccan defense late instead of just keeping the possession carousel spinning—but again, not good enough. The threat of Morocco coming through on the break neutered Spain’s fullbacks, who worked more on trying to find entry passes from deep than they did stretching the Moroccan defense.
That threat was very real. Morocco managed three shots in the first half to Spain’s one, the latter’s lowest total in a World Cup game in nearly 60 years. Midfielder Azzedine Ounahi was a crucial third man in support of stars Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech, leading Morocco’s periodic counters with cleverness and poise even into extra time, like on this chance created for substitute Walid Cheddira that should have ended the game before penalties.
Spain’s best opportunity of the game ended up being chalked off as offside, but even then, it couldn’t hit the net, with Moroccan goalkeeper Bono deflecting the first attempt off the crossbar and midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, who was incredible throughout the game, sliding to block the follow-up.
So dire were Spain’s scoring woes that it couldn’t even touch the net during the shootout. Bono saved two, and a third went off the post.
Morocco sunk three out of four, with the final one being a Hakimi panenka right down the middle.
After a second-straight disappointing exit, Spain will have to figure out what and how much to adjust. The underlying numbers still like its approach. There is so much young talent that it will remain one of the world’s best soccer nations for the conceivable future, but it will have a much better chance of winning if it figures out how to incorporate a little bit more diversity of style into its play, gets better at the risk calculus of holding the ball no matter what versus trying to create some danger in it, and learns how to toggle between Plan A and Plan B in the same match. How many passes does it take to get to the center of the Tootsie Pop? The world would have found out by now if that was going to work. Better to find somebody who can take a bite out of it.
For the winners, a different sort of threat awaits. Morocco lost to Portugal 1–0 at the World Cup in 2018, but the version that benched Cristiano Ronaldo and then spanked Switzerland 6–1 Tuesday, looks more dangerous than it has in a decade, far more versatile than the Spain team that just spin-cycled its way out of the tournament. In the quarters, the challenge for Morocco’s leakproof defense will be bigger than ever. So will the stakes. A win, and it would become the first African nation to make the World Cup semifinals. A win, and underdogs everywhere might yet have reason to hope.