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Group H Gave This Group Stage The Astonishing Send-Off It Deserved

Sofia Bouftini and Morocco players celebrate advancing to the knock out stage after the 1-0 victory in the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group H match between Morocco and Colombia at Perth Rectangular Stadium on August 03, 2023 in Perth, Australia.
Alex Grimm - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Soccer is supposed to be a simple sport. Twenty-two players chase the ball around for 90 minutes, and at the end of the day, the Germans make it out of the group stage of the Women's World Cup. Well, on Thursday, 22 players and their six substitutes chased the ball around for 107 minutes in Brisbane, and at the end of the day, Germany received its first group stage exit in Women's World Cup history, courtesy of both a 1-1 draw against South Korea and, in Perth, a 1-0 Moroccan win over group winners Colombia, which sends the North African nation into the round of 16 at the expense of the Europeans.

The final day of Group H play, which doubled as the final pair of games in a group stage laden with upsets, delivered plenty of chaos and drama and hope and despair and soccer. Both matches embraced the moment and spotlight, going deep into the double digits of second-half stoppage time; Germany and South Korea played 17 extra minutes, while Colombia and Morocco got 12. In all that extended time, one goal could have made the difference, in either game: If Colombia had scored and tied Morocco, then Germany would go through on goal difference. Ditto if the Germans had scored against South Korea. Anything else would have put Morocco into the knockouts in its maiden voyage at the World Cup.

There was plenty of soccer played before all that stoppage time, of course. Entering the final matchday, each team's goals were simple. Colombia was essentially through, barring some truly historic goal difference shenanigans; Germany just needed to win to go through, and a draw would be enough so long as Morocco didn't win; Similarly, Morocco needed to better Germany's result, either winning if Germany drew or drawing if Germany lost; South Korea, whose hopes were technically alive but not really, needed a massive win, something like 5-0, and also for a Colombia win in the other game.

With that last part in mind, it was South Korea that got the party started, six minutes into its game against Germany. Thanks to the German defense executing one of the worst offside lines you will ever see, Cho So-hyun found herself completely open in the middle of the penalty box, with only goalkeeper Merle Frohms in her way. The Korean No. 8 capitalized on the absolute gift provided her by the backline, slotting a right-footed shot across goal and past Frohms' legs. Cue Moroccan joy:

That joy lasted quite a while, almost the entire first half. While Morocco pushed for the goal that would help put its destiny in its own hands, Germany shifted into comeback mode. Who else should score, then, than the woman who is exiting the tournament tied for the lead in goals? Yes, in the 42nd minute, it was Alexandra Popp once again, scoring a massive goal for Germany with, once again, her head.

This current Germany team may have a lot of talent, but it did seem, especially on matchday three, that the side's main strategy for goals was to just launch crosses at Popp and hope she could slot them in: three of her four goals came from headers, while the fourth was a penalty in the loss to Colombia. Regardless, her 42nd minute strike put Germany back ahead of Morocco on goal difference.

That lead lasted all of roughly seven minutes of play. In the dying embers of the first half, Colombian defender Daniela Árias pushed over Morocco's Ibtissam Jraidi in the box, drawing a penalty.

Though Colombian goalie Catalina Pérez saved the initial shot from Ghizlane Chebbak, the ball bounced around the box on the rebound before Anissa Lahmari scored the biggest goal of Morocco's short World Cup history.

That's how the scores sat at halftime, and how they still sat entering stoppage time, despite Popp putting the ball in the back of the net for Germany (called back for offside) and then hitting the post shortly after (also with her head, of course). South Korea also almost scored an olimpico, while Colombia forced one of the saves of the tournament from Morocco's Khadija Er-Rmichi, who had to react perfectly to a Linda Caicedo near-banger:

Each shot that barely missed, or was saved, or was blocked, only ratcheted up the tension, which is really all that the neutral fan can ask for on the last day of the group stage. From here on out, the World Cup becomes a meat grinder, with exhausted teams clinging to whatever bit of juice they have left to go as far as possible. The group stage, and especially the simultaneous matches on the final day, can provide exuberant joy in a way that is much harder to find in the knockouts, where the best teams tend to be at their best, and the scrappy underdogs meet their proud end.

Then again, Morocco is here again, after the men's side did the unthinkable at the World Cup over the winter. This time it's even more of a shock, since the Lionesses of Atlas had never played in a World Cup before and started this tournament with a brutal 6-0 defeat to Germany. That's the beauty of the group stage, if you are a fan of the impossible. With 48 games played, the round of 16 has no Brazil, no Germany, no Canada, no Italy, no China. It also has three African teams for the first time ever, Colombia as a group winner, and Jamaica. Group H was a perfect microcosm of the entire tournament to date, one that points to the evening out of the world's favorite sport across all of its continents.

There's a lot of work to be done around the globe to close the gap entirely, but if this World Cup to date is to be believed, the days of American-and-European total dominance might be coming to a swifter end than anyone might have believed two weeks ago. "First-time World Cup side Morocco advances over two-time champion Germany" is the type of result that can blow the doors wide open. Even if not, though, there are few things in soccer that can top this level of joy:

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