Morocco crash out of World Cup as Cristiano Ronaldo delivers again

Medhi Benatia and Younes Belhanda react after a chance went begging for Morocco. (Reuters)
Updated 20 June 2018
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Morocco crash out of World Cup as Cristiano Ronaldo delivers again

  • Real Madrid star scores after four minutes of Moscow showdown
  • Atlas Lions eliminated after defeats to Iran and Portugal

MOSCOW: Cristiano Ronaldo followed up his opening game heroics at the World Cup with the only goal in a 1-0 win for Portugal against Morocco as the European champions edged closer to the last 16.
The Real Madrid star struck in the fourth minute in Moscow to surpass Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas as Europe’s all-time leading scorer with 85 international goals.
Victory sent Portugal top of Group B on four points ahead of Spain’s game against Iran in Kazan, as a second straight defeat for Morocco condemned the African nation to an early exit in their first World Cup appearance since 1998.
Morocco coach Herve Renard opted for a back four, with Manuel Da Costa and Nabil Dirar coming into the side, to provide added protection against the “absolutely exceptional” Ronaldo after his hat-trick against Spain.
But his plans were torn apart within minutes at the Luzhniki Stadium as Ronaldo wriggled free of the imposing Da Costa to bury an unstoppable header past a helpless Monir El Kajoui.
It was Ronaldo’s fourth goal of the tournament, more than his combined tally at three previous finals, and left him trailing just Iran’s Ali Daei (109) on the list of top international goalscorers.
The Real Madrid forward threatened a second soon after, swivelling on the edge of the area and scuffing just wide after a powerful run from left-back Raphael Guerreiro.
Mehdi Benatia forced a smart low save from Rui Patricio at a corner for Morocco, before Hakim Ziyach skipped his way into the Portugal area, his goal-bound effort blocked by an outstretched leg.
Joao Moutinho then nipped in ahead of Mbark Boussoufa to get a vital clearing touch in the six-yard box as Morocco consistently targeted the right side of the Portuguese defense.
A crude lunge from Benatia on Ronaldo left the Portugal skipper writhing around in pain, while Morocco felt aggrieved when Nordin Amrabat was hauled down by Guerreiro as he muscled his way into the area.
Khalid Boutaib was flattened by Jose Fonte in an aerial challenge that again had the Moroccans up in arms, with Renard warned for gesturing for the video assistant referee.
Morocco goalkeeper El Kajoui kept his side in the game when he stuck out a strong left palm to repel a Goncalo Guedes effort following Ronaldo’s lofted pass over the top.
Ronaldo blazed over from 15 yards after a quick free-kick caught Morocco out, Guedes’s miscued attempt rolling invitingly to the five-time world player of the year.
Morocco continued to carve out opportunities as Patricio clung on well to a curling Belhanda shot, and the Portugal keeper pulled off an even better save minutes later.
Another dangerous delivery from Ziyach was flicked on by Belhanda, with new Wolves signing Patricio flinging himself to his right to magnificently claw the ball to safety.
A further opening fell to Benatia, the Juventus defender neatly shifting the ball onto his left boot only to lash over the bar as Morocco’s frustrations mounted.
The lively Ziyach nipped past Fonte in the closing minutes but found Pepe standing in his way, with Benatia hammering over one final chance to seal Morocco’s fate.
Portugal will meet Iran in their final group game on June 25, with Morocco set to bow out after their match against Spain in Kaliningrad.


Jaka Ihbeisheh’s heartwarming journey from Slovenia to Palestine — via football

Updated 18 November 2018
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Jaka Ihbeisheh’s heartwarming journey from Slovenia to Palestine — via football

LONDON: Jaka Ihbeisheh’s eyes glisten as he recalls the moment his father first watched him play for Palestine. While the midfielder’s path to the national team may have been unconventional, those feelings of pride on his debut were wholly natural. From western Yugoslavia to the West Bank, Ihbeisheh’s journey was fueled by a desire to rediscover his roots.
Ihbeisheh was born in Ljubljana in 1986 to a Slovenian mother and a Palestinian father, who met while the latter was studying medicine in Croatia. His parents separated when he was seven years old, however, and his father moved back to Palestine.
It would be 18 years before he saw his father again.
An early love of football developed into a career for Ihbeisheh, who played for a number of Slovenian clubs. But while he lived out his childhood dream professionally, in his personal life there remained a nagging question about the whereabouts of his father.


In 2013, Ihbeisheh finally decided to try to reach out to the man from whom he had been estranged for three quarters of his life.
“After getting married, I started to question more where I was from and what my father had been doing,” Ihbeisheh explained. “We still had an envelope at home with an address on it so I decided to write a letter to him asking him if he wanted to meet me.
“I wrote three letters — in Slovenian, Croatian and English — and to be honest I had no idea if I would receive a reply.”
A month passed by with no response but then one day Ihbeisheh opened his Facebook account to see a friend request from someone whose name was written in Arabic.
“It was a strange moment after all those years but the date of birth matched my father’s so I knew it was him. We started to talk on Skype first, in Croatian. I was amazed he could remember but he said that because he studied medicine in the language he had never forgotten it. He still used Croatian medical textbooks.

 

Jaka Ihbeisheh in action for Slovenian side Rudar Velenje. (Photo / Twitter: @ihbeisheh)


“After a few calls, my wife and I decided the time was right to go and visit him in Palestine. A lot of people said things like, ‘Don’t go there you are crazy, you will get shot’ — but my father lived there and I wanted to go and visit him. I was not afraid.”
That first trip was fraught with nervous excitement as Ihbeisheh made his way to his father’s homeland via his aunt’s house in Jordan. The midfielder had read and heard about the potential difficulties of the crossing into Palestine and his own passage was not straightforward.
“The security at the border was very heavy and when they asked me where I was going, I said Palestine. He said, ‘No, to Israel’ and I said, ‘No, Palestine’. Then he separated me and my wife and a soldier came and took me into a room to ask a lot of questions.
“They asked about my life, my father, my work, my wife. They went on Wikipedia to check if I really was a Slovenian professional footballer. Then they called my wife inside — they were checking our stories matched. They asked my wife the name of my coach and fortunately she knew it. We were there for five hours in all.”
For Ihbeisheh it was glimpse into the border woes that are a regular part of life for Palestinians, though happier experiences were to come.


“When we got off the bus, my father and all his family were there waiting and it was very emotional. Of course, we had a big meal to celebrate.
“After that trip, I knew that if the opportunity came up I would want to play international football for Palestine. My father didn’t need to say anything for me to know how much it would mean to him.”
When Ihbeisheh returned to Slovenia, the thought of playing for Palestine was still on his mind but he had no idea how to put the wheels in motion. Then a fortuitous meeting with a Palestinian diplomat’s son opened the door. Six months later, Ihbeisheh received a text inviting him to be involved with the squad for the first time.
“My first game was a friendly in Dubai ahead of the 2015 Asian Cup and it was an amazing day. When the national anthem played, I was so proud. You meet the other players and hear their stories, then you understand why it means so much to represent Palestine.
“Since then I have come to play every time they call me. I love being part of this team.”

 

Jaka Ihbeisheh meeting hero Xavi, and on the sidelines of a Rudar Velenje game. (Photo / Twitter: @ihbeisheh)


Ihbeisheh went on to make a major impact at the Asian Cup in Australia, becoming the first Palestinian player to score at a major international tournament in a 5-1 defeat to Jordan.


But while that was a moment to savour, it paled in comparison to the first game he played in Palestine.
“It is a totally different occasion playing in Palestine. Everyone is supporting their country and they make incredible noise, they want to take pictures with us. We feel like heroes. It’s a shame that our home games are often moved away from our land and our people — I hope this stops.
“My first game there was a 0-0 draw with UAE in (the West Bank town) Al-Ram and of course it was the first time my father saw me play in Palestine. This was an emotional moment for him and for me. He said, ‘I was really proud to see you play but I am proud even when you are not playing. You are always representing your country.’
“The more I am called up to play for Palestine, the more I see him so, for us, football has an important meaning.”
That sentiment is true for many in Palestine, for whom football offers a temporary escape from difficult lives. Palestine may often appear to be a byword for conflict but Ihbeisheh has found the opposite to be true, the country uniting him with both his father and his heritage.
“I feel really sad about some of the things I hear, some of the experience my friends and family have. It is difficult to imagine for people like me who have always lived in Europe. You just hear the things on TV or radio but it is not the same as when my teammates tell me their stories.
“What each of them has gone through, and achieved, to play football for Palestine is inspirational. They know how football can help to give the supporters something, for a little bit of time they forget about all the worries. This is important to them, and me.
“I may not come from Palestine but when we are together as team-mates, there is no difference if you have lived your whole life in Palestine or outside of Palestine. We are all the same, we are family.”