DOHA : Morocco’s red-clad army of fans added an extra decibel or two to the last bars of the national anthem before kickoff, sounding a deafening warning to Canada as they willed their team to victory in their Group F game on Thursday and top spot in the standings.
It was a spine-tingling start to yet another match where Moroccan supporters, many of whom live and work in Qatar, packed out the stadium and nearly raised the roof, handing their side a distinct advantage.
An early goal added to the clamour as the north Africans quickly set about beating Canada and securing their place in the next round, finishing ahead of 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia and eliminating the highly fancied Belgium who are second in the FIFA rankings.
If ever there was a side at this World Cup with a veritable 12th man, it is the Moroccans whose level of play at the tournament has been raised a notch or two by the vociferous support.
It carried them through a fatigue-filled second half against Canada at the Al Thumama Stadium and was certainly the decisive factor last Sunday when they beat Belgium to set up their unexpected progress to the last-16.
With 20 minutes left against Belgium, and the score still 0-0, Morocco were visibly tiring, the ferocity of the tussle taking its toll on players who rarely play in matches of such intensity.
The din of a concerned crowd transformed into a tumultuous racket when Abdelhamid Sabiri's free kick caught out Thibaut Courtois at his near post and captain Romain Saiss added a slight touch to see Morocco into the lead.
The supporters’ enthusiasm injected a second wind into the players’ legs - so much so that they were able to see off Belgium’s desperate efforts to get back into the game and go on and add a second goal for a famous victory.
“There is no doubt they played a huge role in lifting us,” said Morocco’s key attacker Hakim Ziyech after that match.
That continued against Canada on Thursday and Morocco will certainly need it for their next match on Tuesday.
That the Moroccan anthem is sung with such passion at a footballing arena is no coincidence. The ‘Hymne Cherifien’ has a special connection with the World Cup. After its independence, Morocco did not have lyrics for the national anthem but when it qualified for the first time for the 1970 finals, their king commissioned words to go with the music.
"Let's go brothers. Heading for grandeur," are among the final lines.
Morocco will now also be able to count on unbridled support from across the region in this first World Cup hosted by an Arab nation.
Hosts Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia are all out, leaving the Moroccans to fly the flag.
It can only mean more support and even more energy in their quest to get to the business end of the tournament.
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)