France will play Lionel Messi and Argentina for the title on Sunday while Morocco will take on Croatia in Saturday’s third-place game.
Morocco didn’t concede a goal to an opponent and never trailed in its first five games in Qatar but Hernández ended both streaks, giving France the only score it would need on a marvelous left-footed volley. Two shots from Kylian Mbappe in the center of the box were blocked but the rebound off the second try took a high bounce to Hernandez, just to the left of the goal. He went up to get it, reaching out with his left leg to knock the ball by Moroccan keeper Yassine Bounou, who had come off his line, and past defender Achraf Dari on a bounce.
The goal was the earliest in a World Cup semifinal since 1958 and it forced Morocco to come out of it defensive shell and chase the game for the first time in this tournament. Morocco was then dealt another blow in the 21st minute when captain and center back Romain Saiss, who was stretched off the field in the second half of Morocco’s quarterfinal win over Portugal, had to come out again.
Walid Regragui, Morocco’s French-born coach, compared his team to the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa, who didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to win. And like Rocky, Morocco took blow and blow Wednesday but kept fighting, putting France under constant pressure throughout the second half.
It finally went down in the 79th minute when substitute Randal Kolo Muani scored on his first touch, taking a Mbappe pass at the far post and punching it into an open net. But Mbappe made the goal, dribbling through three defenders as he entered the box on the left wing, then rolling a low through ball to a wide-open Kolo Muani on the other side.
Morocco, just the second nation outside Europe or South America to reach the semifinals of the World Cup in 92 years, was also the first Arab and first African country to make it to the final four. And doing that in the first World Cup played in an Arab state won it a huge following: Wednesday’s crowd of 69,294 at Al Bayt Stadium, on the edge of the Qatari desert, was a sea of Moroccan red.
France, meanwhile, is the first country since Brazil in 2002 to reach consecutive World Cup finals; no men’s team has won back-to-back titles in 60 years. That France now has a chance to end that streak is almost as remarkable as Morocco’s performance given that Les Bleus came to Qatar missing three key players to injuries, then lost two more, including reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, before the end of their first game.
But several players have stepped up. Aging striker Olivier Giroud, who wasn’t expected to play much, has taken Benzema’s place and scored four goals. Aurelien Tchouameni has stepped into a midfield void created by the loss or N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba and played more than 500 minutes. And Hernández, subbing for his injured brother, who went down in the first half of the first game, gave France its first goal Wednesday.
Kolo Muani’s goal was his first for France in his fourth appearance.