Sport

QATAR 2022

Can Morocco actually go all the way to win the World Cup?

Can Morocco actually go all the way to win the World Cup?
Youssef En-Nesyri (R) of Morocco beats goalkeeper Diogo Costa of Portugal to the ball and scores the opening goal during the Fifa World Cup 2022 quarterfinal match between Morocco and Portugal at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, 10 December 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ali Haider)

Morocco became the first African country to reach the World Cup semifinal with their deserved 1-0 win over Portugal on Saturday, Could they go all the way now?

At 7.56pm, Qatari time, on the first day of non-sunshine during the 2022 World Cup, something wonderful happened that had never been seen before in the 92 years of staging this competition.

They had given everything. They were quick to the ball, strong in the tackle. Their fans created a heck of a din, as they have done all the way through this tournament. And then, finally, Morocco had given Africa its first World Cup semi-finalists in almost a century of trying.

We have seen some raw emotion in this World Cup but nothing tops that moment when the players of Morocco — a nation that did not even qualify for the first four World Cups of this century — could reflect on what they had done and understand this was a genuine piece of sporting history.

Cameroon had threatened to do it when Roger Milla jiggled his hips by the corner flag and made Italia 90 so much fun. Senegal made it to the quarter-finals in 2002. Ghana will never forget Luis Suarez’s villainy at the same stage eight years later.

Only those three sides, though, had ever represented Africa in the last eight before.

African football has been left behind, for the most part, since the inaugural tournament in Uruguay in 1930, when the ship the Egypt squad were on got caught in a storm on the Mediterranean and they missed their connection which was meant to take them on to South America. The tournament went ahead with only 13 teams, none of them from Africa.

Now, though, Morocco are threatening to pull off what would surely be the wildest story there has been in a World Cup. Can they actually go the whole hog and win the damned thing next Sunday? Is anyone ever going to score past them again?

Kwadwo Asamoah from Ghana and Diego Forlan from Uruguay during the quarterfinal match between Ghana and Uruguay on 2 July 2010 at Soccer City in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Denvor de Wee)

Toppling giants

Belgium, the top European nation in Fifa’s world rankings and second overall, tried and failed in the group stage. So did Croatia, who have just Brazil and are one win from back-to-back World Cup finals. Spain could not score past Morocco in 120 minutes of trying and, ignominiously, failed to even find the net once in a penalty shootout. That one cost Luis Enrique any chance of staying on as their coach.

Then it was Portugal’s turn and, again, we were reminded about the powers of motivation and supreme organisation that make Morocco the hardest nut to crack in this World Cup. They have let in one goal from their last eight matches, including five in this tournament. Even that was an own goal.

This is the best defence in the World Cup, bar none, and it has to be that way because the heroes of this story are quite happy to accept that other teams have more celebrated and glamorous players. Morocco are happy to play the role of underdogs.

It was some line from Walid Regragui. “When you watch Rocky Balboa, you want to support him,” their manager said. “We are the Rocky of this World Cup.”

If anyone needs further evidence, just consider the acclaim that Goncalo Ramos received after taking Cristiano Ronaldo’s place in Portugal’s 6-1 dismantling of Switzerland in the previous round and scoring a beautifully taken hat-trick.

Against Morocco, Ramos was so crowded out he managed only two touches of the ball inside the penalty area. His opponents simply never gave him space. They set out to restrict him, to smother him, to break him. He lasted 69 minutes. Mission accomplished.

As for Ronaldo, there will always be a sharp focus on what happened at the final whistle because, at the same time that his opponents were trying to process the scale of their achievement, it felt like we were also seeing the last of him on the World Cup stage.

Ronaldo, being Ronaldo, headed straight for the tunnel. No handshakes, no waves to the crowd, no looking back. This has been the World Cup when even a player with his planet-sized ego must have been flooded with insecurity. He wanted to get out of there.

Romania defender Gheorghe Popescu (centre) looks on as Cameroon substitute Roger Milla races through to score his first goal during the Fifa 1990 World Cup group match at the Stadium San Nicola on 14 June in Bari, Italy. (Photo: Allsport / Getty Images)

No possession? No problem

Even that, however, felt like a subplot to a much bigger story when football, after all, is meant to be about fun and celebration and winning. There were mums on the pitch, kids in the dressing room.

Morocco’s fans had packed out the Souq Waqif, the focal point of activity in Qatari capital Doha, all day. They banged their drums, sang their songs, and could not really care less about the statistic that tells us their team are averaging around 30 per cent of possession in each match here.

It really doesn’t matter when they have a goalkeeper in the form of Yassine Bounou, or centre-backs as committed as Romain Saiss and Jawad El Yamiq, or a system that enables them to counter-attack with such efficiency.

Achraf Hakimi is the outstanding right-back of the tournament. Yahia Attiyat Allah has slotted in seamlessly at left-back. Even with injuries, with Saiss going off in tears just before the hour, with Nayef Aguerd and Noussair Mazraoui out of contention, there is so much to admire about Morocco’s sheer refusal to be vulnerable. El Yamiq even managed to get away with kissing Pepe’s head after the Portugal defender missed a late chance to equalise.

Not that it would be fair, either, to characterise Regragui’s team as purely defence-minded. There is only Lionel Messi in the French league who has dribbled the ball more times per 90 minutes this season than Azzedine Ounahi.

Look at the way Youssef En-Nesyri outjumped and outdid Ruben Dias for the game’s decisive moment.

Hakim Ziyech had fallen out with the previous coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, but is flourishing under his replacement. Sofiane Boufal is playing so well it can feel like a trick of the mind that he never had more impact for Southampton in four years in the Premier League. There is so much to like.

All of which brings us back to the question about whether a nation that had won only two out of 16 games at their five previous World Cups can go even further and do something that would have seemed almost implausible, laughable even, at the start of this tournament.

Badr Benoun of Morocco celebrates after the Fifa World Cup 2022 quarterfinal match between Morocco and Portugal at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, 10 December 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ali Haider)

Ignored

And perhaps this is also a good time to remember how the football world has consistently ignored Morocco when it has sought in the past to bring this tournament to African soil.

Morocco first campaigned to be hosts of the 1994 finals, when the tournament went to the United States. They tried again four years later and France was chosen instead. The next time they submitted a bid, in 2006, it went to Germany. Then, for 2010, Fifa decided it was time for Africa to stage its first World Cup. And Morocco lost out to South Africa.

Against that kind of backdrop, Morocco could probably be forgiven for wondering whether Fifa has ever taken it particularly seriously. African football, as a whole, knows that feeling. And one success story on the pitch is not to going change everything.

It will help, though.

There is a chance it might open up the way for more African nations to be involved at the 48-team 2026 World Cup.

It is a historic moment and, at this stage of the tournament, nobody should be looking at the list of semi-finalists —Argentina, Croatia, France and Morocco — and concluding there are only three nations with a realistic chance. DM

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.

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