DOHA, Qatar (AP) — 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 before 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 Gonçalo Ramos — scored a hat trick to leave Santos with quite the selection dilemma against Morocco.
“I hope he won’t (play),” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said Friday of Ronaldo. “As a coach I know he’s one of the best players in history and so I’d be delighted if he didn’t play.”
The announcement of Portugal’s team about 90 minutes before the game at Al Thumama Stadium is keenly awaited as Ronaldo prepares to play in the quarterfinals of the World Cup for just the second time in his glittering career.
Santos declined to share selection thoughts Friday for what he said would be a different kind of game to the one against Switzerland, while noting that “90% of the questions” are about Ronaldo at Portugal's pregame news conferences.
One inevitable question Santos faced was about reports in national media that Ronaldo threatened to leave the World Cup after being told he was benched. Not true, the coach said.
“He has never told me that he wanted to leave the national team,” Santos said through an interpreter. "Cristiano obviously wasn't very happy about it. He told me ‘Do you really think it’s a good idea?’”
Portugal is at this stage for only the third time after 1966 and 2006, perhaps surprising given the talent to have come from the country down the years.
Four years ago, Portugal lost in the round of 16 to Uruguay, though a group-stage game against Morocco was “possibly the most difficult match” the team faced, Santos said Friday.
“We won 1-0 but we had to suffer a lot to win that match,” he said. "My players know that.”
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.
The excitement extended to 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.
“We haven’t got carried away by the euphoria," Regragui said. “We’ve just surprised a few people and surprised a few algorithms who expected Belgium to get through ... and expected Spain to get through. We are not satisfied with where we have come so far."
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 the tournament's 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 anchored by 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.
“Yes, they are tired, yes, we have injuries. We are not going to hide it and we are not going to complain," Regragui said. "We are here on a mission."
Portugal doesn't appear to have such problems, with Santos' squad depth so impressive that he could afford to leave players like Ronaldo, João Cancelo and Rúben Neves on the bench against Switzerland after they started every group game.
Even if he is among the substitutes again, Ronaldo — playing in what is likely his 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.
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar contributed to this report.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
Steve Douglas, The Associated Press