Contrary to just about every predicted outcome, Morocco is among the final four nations in the 2022 World Cup. We take a look at the country’s journey to becoming the first African nation to make it this far in the tournament.
Morocco is in a World Cup semifinal. The unflappable Atlas Lions have done it, against all conceivable odds. Up until a week ago, the country had only ever competed in one World Cup knockout game in its history: a 1-0 defeat to West Germany in 1986. When the clock strikes midnight on Wednesday in Qatar, it will have taken that tally to at least four, with the prospect of a fifth something that doesn’t bear thinking about…yet.
This World Cup — the first to take place in an Arab country — despite all its shortcomings, controversy, and hypocrisy, has delivered one of the greatest stories in the history of international football. It was Morocco who delivered a World Cup semifinal to Africa and the Arab world first. It will always be Morocco.
In thousands of years, when extraterrestrial beings descend to Earth and rifle through the long history of this incredible, ridiculous sport, Morocco will feature prominently. There will be special mentions to those who came so close, but ultimately came up short: Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002, Ghana in 2010. Much will be made of the manner in which Morocco stands on the shoulders of these giants, and rightly so. But it will always be Morocco who did it first.
Morocco is in a World Cup semifinal. It’s worth repeating, over and over again. Not for the incredulity, the miraculousness, the unbelievable nature of it all, but instead the very opposite. This is an achievement of the highest merit, one that the country has done nothing but earn. Morocco is in a World Cup semifinal, not for any other reason than they’re a brilliant, dynamic football team.
If you’d kept a close eye on the Moroccan national team for the past few years, you’d have seen something brewing. In 2007, King Mohammed VI invested in the creation of a football academy in Salé costing around £12 million at the time. The new facilities, which bear his name (of course), contained a school, a new campus, and a medical center. The aim was to cultivate a new attitude in Moroccan football after a barren period. Since then, the country has opened five new academies in cities like Tangiers and Agadir, with the prospect of new ones on the way.
And while most of this current crop ply their trade among Europe’s elite clubs, many began their careers in the newly-blossoming academy system. Players like Youssef En-Nesyri, who scored the winner against Portugal, the biggest goal in his country’s history, have graduated from the Mohammed VI Football Academy.
Beyond delivering actual match-winning footballers, the shake-up of the academy infrastructure has helped redefine the Moroccan national team. Raising standards, channeling the passion of a football-mad country, and providing talented players with the skillset to succeed, has been a massive reward. Qualification for the 2018 World Cup — the country’s first in two decades — must have felt like sweet vindication for those in charge of the national team.
But being invited to a party is one thing, being handed control of the music is another. This time around, Morocco has made people dance to its tune the whole way.
The only goal the Atlas Lions conceded all tournament was against Canada, a game which they won 2-1. In beating Belgium, Spain and Portugal, they’ve defeated the No. 2-, 7-, and 9-ranked teams in the world, according to FIFA’s World Rankings (Morocco is No. 22). They held Croatia to a valiant 0-0 draw, the only blight on their perfect tournament record.
It’s not like there is a shortage of talented players that have kicked Morocco on in recent years. Names like Ziyech, Hakimi, Boufal and Mazraoui are all-too-familiar by now, but this tournament has been a breakout event for goalkeeper Yassine Bounou and midfielder Sofyan Amrabat. Romain Saïss, along with the rest of the defensive line, has been completely infallible.
With the ball, they’re purposeful, silky, delicate. Their counter-attacking prowess, against Spain in particular, was devastating. They’re happy to concede possession, which actually causes more problems for the teams trying to break them down. The way in which they execute the manager’s plan is with pinpoint accuracy and attention to detail; which feels like the perfect moment to introduce the man behind the magic.
Walid Regragui only took the job in August after Vahid Halilhodžić was sacked, following a successful qualification campaign but a controversial bust-up with the Moroccan football hierarchy. Regragui’s previous job was with Wydad AC, one of the biggest clubs in both Morocco and the whole of Africa. In 2021, he led the club to a third African Champions League triumph. Its rivalry with Raja Casablanca is legendary — the Casablanca derby in many ways encapsulates everything about Moroccan football and its very real, very central place in society. Regragui, as can be said for the managers of all five of Africa’s teams at this World Cup, brings that energy with him.
But the biggest thing he’s done with this marvelous Morocco team is galvanize a fiery spirit, a fearless sense of grit and an unshakable belief. This spirit has spread to all Moroccans, both back home and the thousands who pack into Qatar’s stadiums, who’ve turned every match into a de facto home one.
The relentless whistling when opposition players jink and jive, looking for a way to breach the resolute defense, is deafening. A Moroccan homage to the Icelandic thunder clap is a power-shifting, rallying cry. In celebration, the bond between the players, staff, fans, neutrals, even the players’ mothers, is that of a united force. They know that with every passing minute, they’re inspiring the next generation of not just Moroccan footballers, but footballers throughout the whole of Africa and beyond.
Whatever happens on Wednesday night, Morocco has won. Africa and the Arab world has won. The Atlas Lions are riding a wave of hope so powerful that it might just smash through the French team, leaving Kylian Mbappe and Didier Deschamps in their wake, wondering what went wrong. Stranger things have happened. After all, Morocco is in the semifinal of a World Cup.