“No Morocco, No Party” read a banner in one of the corners of the Krestovsky Stadium before the North African nation marked their return to the World Cup after a 20-year absence against Iran.
Seemingly taking the message literally, Herve Renard’s men kicked off with FIFA’s throbbing, techno-soundtracked countdown to kick-off still running.
The music soon cut out but, although Morocco substitute Aziz Bouhaddouz’s heartbreaking own goal in stoppage time gave this contest a similarly dramatic 1-0 conclusion to Egypt v Uruguay earlier in the day, the game careered along at a contrastingly furious rate of BPM early on.
A hard-headed pragmatist would tell you both teams had no margin for error here – a truism Bouhaddouz is unlikely to welcome any time soon – with a win a must as European heavyweights Spain and Portugal await in Group B.
But, even allowing for Louis van Gaal’s inimitable backing for Morocco to go all the way, neither of these teams will get anywhere near the final and progress from the round-robin phase would be rightly lauded as success.
Iran can continue to dream but, in many ways, this match had already been a celebration; a time to revel in victories already won for the underdogs, the downtrodden and marginalised on and off the pitch.
As football’s centre of gravity increasingly resides in Western Europe, World Cup games such as these serve to remind us countries who are absolutely potty about the game reside outside that recognised heartland.
Morocco – watched from the bench by their France 98 hero Mustapha Hadji, who is now a member of Herve Renard’s coaching staff – were raucously backed from the warm-up onwards by supporters decked out in red and assisted by the vuvuzela 2.0.
Iran’s supporters were not to be outdone in the noise stakes, bringing some of the fire and fury of the Tehran derby to the north of Russia.
The party actually started well before Morocco’s banner emerged. It started in central St Petersburg on Thursday night, with Iranians – both men and women – largely out-singing the recently victorious hosts.
In Iran, women are refused entry to football matches. Here, they have been welcomed and celebrated by their countrymen and fans from across the world. Protest groups such as OpenStadiums have spread word of their gallant struggle and this – seeing their beloved Team Melli on the grandest stage in the flesh – was victory, vindication and no doubt fuel to drive the battles that lie ahead.
On the field, Iran quickly seemed overmatched and overawed. A defence that kept nine consecutive clean sheets during qualification looked like late invitees to this particular party who had only just been introduced. Cancelled pre-tournament friendlies left them undercooked and exposed.
For Morocco, French-born duo Amine Harit and Younes Belhanda got to work in their twinkling dancing shoes, playing in Hadji’s image and perplexing their opponents.
Up front, Ayoub El Kaabi passed for the doorman before unfurling the loping stride that has propelled him from Morocco’s lower leagues to the national team in the space of two years.
That trio and Ajax star Hakim Ziyech – who might have been watching this tournament from home had he chosen to represent Netherlands and not his parents’ homeland – presented varied problems, which Iran settled upon meeting by hurling bodies at ball, man or both.
Brave defending became increasingly clear-headed, with Esteghlal centre-back Roozbeh Cheshmi putting early gaffes behind him to play with authority.
Ziyech – reportedly a target for Roma and Liverpool among others – fluffed his lines with an embarrassing airshot and Schalke’s Harit combined menacing runs with more kitten-like finishing.
Belhanda was also culpable in front of goal and when Iran’s holding midfielder Omid Ebrahimi unceremoniously dumped the Galatasaray playmaker to the turf, a rampaging counter-attack began. Morocco goalkeeper Munir Mohamedi intervened with a brilliant double save to deny Sardar Azmoun and another Eredivisie star Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
It was the Atlas Lions who needed half-time more. No one in particular needed what followed – a scrappy, fractious and forgettable 45 minutes unworthy of the dramatic denouement.
Sofyan Amrabat’s foul was needless, Ehsan Haji Safi’s delivery was wicked and persuaded St Pauli striker Bouhaddouz, sent on to find a winner at the other end, to fling himself fatefully towards the ball.
When the dust settles and the trophy is lifted early next month, ‘Morocco 0 Iran 1’ will not have lingered in the memory. But for those presently crestfallen sons of immigrants who found a footballing homeland in their roots and daughters of Iran who shake an archaic system to its core, it shall be forever hold a special place. They made it.