Sport

QATAR 2022

Morocco are striking back for rest of the world against Europe and South America

Morocco are striking back for rest of the world against Europe and South America
Achraf Hakimi of Morocco celebrates with Abde Ezzalzouli, Abdelhamid Sabiri and Yahya Jabrane after scoring the winning penalty against Spain. (Photo: Ian MacNicol / Getty Images)

Morocco are the only African side in the World Cup quarterfinals and could make history by becoming the first side from the continent to make the last four.

For the first time in the whole tournament, Walid Regragui did not like what he was seeing.

The penalty shootout had swung firmly in Morocco’s favour, thanks to their goalkeeper Bono, and they were so, so close to reaching the World Cup quarterfinal. But Regragui could see his players getting jumpy, overexcited, showing too much nervous energy at a moment that called for composure.

“Calme!” the Morocco coach shouted to his players, trying to make himself heard above the ear-splitting noise their supporters were making inside Education City Stadium. “Calme!”

Achraf Hakimi walked up. He looked calm, he looked cool, he looked composed. He took the ball from the referee, placed it on the spot and walked backwards, never taking his eyes off the centre of the goal, where Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon was standing.

Hakimi was born and raised in Madrid, but he has always felt Moroccan and never more than at this moment, standing over a penalty kick with the chance to eliminate Spain and send his parents’ country – his country – through to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time.

Morocco players run to congratulate Achraf Hakimi after he scored the winning penalty against Spain. (Photo: Ian MacNicol / Getty Images)

Achraf Hakimi scores the penalty that put Morocco into the World Cup quarterfinals. (Photo: Ian MacNicol / Getty Images)

The Paris Saint-Germain full-back glanced left, heard the referee’s whistle, looked down at the ball, up at Simon and down at the ball again. Then he stepped up and dinked it straight down the middle, into the net, as calmly as if he were taking a sip of mint tea.

And with that, almost the entire crowd erupted in celebration, sparking joyous, raucous, euphoric scenes that were mirrored in Arab communities all over the world, not least here across Doha into the early hours.

Historic moment

This was a historic moment. The World Cup quarterfinal stage is uncharted territory not just for Morocco, but for North Africa and for the Arab world. If at times there has been a depressing, dispiriting lack of authenticity and soul to the first World Cup held in the Middle East, a much-needed Arab flavour has come thanks to Morocco’s performances and the colour, noise and fervour brought by their supporters.

To appreciate that, you only had to look at the frenzied celebrations in the stands, where the Moroccan fans were going berserk.

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It was also mirrored in the press box, where one reporter, who looked old enough to recall Morocco’s first World Cup in 1970, let out a long succession of primal screams, slumped to his seat as if exhausted, stood up again, composed himself, wiped his brow, covered his face and then appeared to collapse in tears at his desk.

It was mirrored in the footage of Medhi Benatia, their captain in Russia four years ago, crying tears of joy on French television, saying it is time for Morocco “to dream a little and… to win the World Cup”.

And it was mirrored in the post-match press conference where one journalist announced to Regragui and Bono that “I don’t have any question. I just want to thank you because today 40 million people are happy. Thank you, coach Walid. Thank you, Yassine (Bono). I’m speaking with tears in my eyes because you have made Moroccan history.”

Achraf Hakimi and a fan at full-time during Morocco’s match against Spain. (Photo: Ian MacNicol / Getty Images)

This is Morocco’s sixth World Cup but the first time they have reached the last eight. And nobody can accuse them of taking an easy route. They have played Croatia, Belgium and now Spain (three of the top 12 teams in the world, according to the Fifa rankings) without conceding a goal.

The only one they have conceded came when their defender Nayef Aguerd, at full stretch, diverted a cross past Bono during a group match against Canada.

When they beat Belgium 2-0, they were the better team. For 120 goalless minutes against Spain, they had to defend and battle as if their lives depended on it. Aguerd, until he was forced off by injury in the 84th minute, was immense alongside Romain Saiss in the centre of defence.

Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui, the full-backs, were outstanding. Sofyan Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi were indefatigable and immense in midfield.

Physically and emotionally drained

Spain’s lack of potency in attack – more than 1,000 attempted passes over 120 minutes, but only a single shot on target – but in mitigation they were up against a team whose unrelenting tenacity seemed to shock Luis Enrique and his players. “(Sofyan) Amrabat we know very well, but the No 8 (Azzedine Ounahi) didn’t stop running,” the Spain coach said. “He was outstanding. He must be feeling destroyed.”

Yassine Bounou is held up by his teammates after Morocco defeated Spain on penalties. (Photo: Ian MacNicol / Getty Images)

Hakim Ziyech of Morocco scores a penalty during their last-16 clash with Spain. (Photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto / Getty Images)

Regragui suggested Luis Enrique was right. He said his entire team and staff felt emotionally and physically drained as they tried to recover in time to play Portugal in the quarterfinal on Saturday.

“The players used up a lot of energy,” the Morocco coach said. “For a national team like ours, the adrenalin and the pressure is so intense. You want to go down in history, but that (pressure) takes up a lot of energy.”

Read in Daily Maverick: “Morocco success secures Arab world its first World Cup quarterfinalist

He described his team as “a family, a united team”. That includes Hakim Ziyech, who, having only completed 90 minutes once for Chelsea this season, seemed to run non-stop for 120 minutes for Morocco.

Regragui was asked how he had managed to get Ziyech working so hard for the team. By encouraging him while also showing him the love that he craves, the coach said. “Some coaches say all players should be treated equally,” he said. “But Hakim is not just any other player. I show him a lot of love and respect because he needs it.”

These players look like they would do anything for the Moroccan cause. Regragui reminded his audience that 14 of the 26 players in his squad had qualified to play for the team via Moroccan ancestry, having been born elsewhere (including Bono, Hakimi, Saiss, Mazraoui, Amrabat and Ziyech), and that some of them had been questioned over their commitment to the cause.

Youssef En-Nesyri is tackled by Spain’s Marcos Llorente (right) and Nico Williams. (Photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto / Getty Images)

“Before this World Cup we had a lot of problems about guys born in Europe,” the coach said. “Sometimes people, including some journalists in this room, said: ‘These guys don’t love Morocco. Why not play with the guys born in Morocco?’ We showed the world that every Moroccan is Moroccan. When he comes with the national team, he wants to die, wants to fight.”

“I was born in France,” he added. “But nobody can take my heart from my country.”

There is always a lot of talk of heart, desire and fighting spirit when it comes to the African and Asian nations at a World Cup. Sometimes it sounds condescending, as if people imagine those teams are incapable of showing skill or tactical discipline.

Ferran Torres of Spain is tackled by Morocco’s Noussair Mazraoui. (Photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto / Getty Images)

At this World Cup, nations such as Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ghana, Senegal and particularly Morocco have performed with just that energy and spirit. But they have also shown technical quality and, contrary to stereotype in some cases, a strong degree of organisation and tactical sophistication.

 

 

It felt like we spent the first fortnight of the World Cup enthusing about the tenacity and no little quality shown by the nations from outside the traditional strongholds of Europe and South America. After all those shock results in the group stage, it felt as if normal service was being resumed in the knockout stage, with Europe on course to take six quarterfinal places and South America the other two, just like they did in Russia in 2018.

Noussair Mazraoui of Morocco controls the ball during their round-of-16 match against Spain. (Photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto / Getty Images)

Morocco players pray after their match against Spain at Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan. (Photo: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto / Getty Images)

Twenty-four hours earlier Japan had come agonisingly close to reaching the quarterfinals for the first time, only to be beaten on penalties by Croatia. In the penultimate tie of the round, Morocco struck back, a welcome blow not just for Africa or for the Arab world but, above all, for a proud nation.

Morocco has a serious football heritage and a true passion for the game. It is why the country has made five separate bids to host the World Cup and, undeterred by past rejections, will bid for a sixth time for 2030. On and off the pitch, the Moroccans are making their presence felt in Qatar. DM

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.

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