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Morocco’s rise in Qatar is knocking at the doors of football history. This time for Africa

Morocco defeated heavyweights Belgium, Canada, and Spain to book a quarterfinal slot against Portugal at the 2022 Qatar World Cup. But how did it do it?

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Moroccan mayhem! Drink it in Casablanca! Relish it, Rabat! This is your night! Sing it from the top of the Atlas mountains! All aboard the Marrakesh Express!” bellowed broadcaster Peter Drury at Doha’s Al Thumama Stadium on 27 November, after the Morocco men’s football team downed heavyweights Belgium 2-0 at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.

The unexpected but dominant victory over Roberto Martinez’s fractious side would prove to be just one of Morocco’s several scalps in this tournament. Managed by Walid Regragui and captained by central defender Romain Saiss, the Atlas Lions (as Morocco’s national football team is known) beat an inexperienced Canada but also held the 2018 runners-up Croatia and the 2010 winners Spain to goalless draws, eliminating the latter on penalties to set up a quarter-final with Portugal.

In a landmark World Cup that will be the last of its kind before the expansion to 48 teams for 2026, Morocco’s unbeaten run is not only the face of the underdogs that have recorded numerous upsets in Qatar so far, but has also the reputation of advancing where no Arab nation has reached before. If the Atlas Lions beat Portugal today, they would also be the first African side to make the final four of a FIFA World Cup.

Given the disappointments that most nations from outside the Europe-South America strongholds have served up in the tournament’s 92-year history as the likes of India teem with footballing passion but fail to make the grade on the field, Morocco’s rise is long overdue for Africa and is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

Also read: Morocco’s 2-0 win over Belgium sparks riots in Brussels, 1 arrested, dozen people detained

How Morocco did it

On 11 August, the federation of African football’s perennial nearly men made an eyebrow-raising choice in its management of the team. Having already secured qualification to the biggest stage in March and a quarter-final finish at the Africa Cup of Nations, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation sacked the team’s Bosnian manager Vahid Halihodzic for off-field reasons, such as falling out with several senior players.

The move was both a huge gamble as well as an inevitability. Halihodzic has a strong record of coaching smaller footballing nations to respectable qualifications and finishes at the World Cup, having previously taken Morocco’s regional rivals Algeria to the round of 16. He is also notorious for his abrasive personality in the dressing room and his stubborn approach to tactics, which led to the likes of creative attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech briefly retiring from Morocco duties.

The timing of the sacking was questionable, with only friendlies and no competitive games on the horizon for new manager Walid Regragui to figure out his best lineup. But less than four months into the job, Regragui has been proactive in implementing a style of football that has worked wonders for Morocco, and proven that his African Champions League win with Wydad Casablanca was not a one-off.

With four goals in four World Cup games and just one conceded, Morocco’s on field play may be closer in aesthetic to Greece’s champion run at Euro 2004 than Hungary’s Mighty Magyars of the 1950s. As such, it is unlikely that most fans and experts’ pre-tournament brackets could have predicted that the only team to score against Morocco so far would be an inexperienced and already eliminated Canada side, nor would they have predicted three clean sheets in four games.

But Regragui has found the sweet spot by setting up his team in a 4-3-3 formation and a classic low defensive block, more than happy to cede the vast majority of possession and chance creation to the opposition. Be it Belgium, Croatia or Spain, the Europeans have found it tough going against a disciplined backline and a goalkeeper in Yassine Bounou who has developed a wealth of experience since the last World Cup playing regularly for Spanish club Sevilla.

Born in Montreal but spending 13 years of his early career in Casablanca, Bounou has risen from a mid-tier La Liga keeper to a rung below the very best in the world, and he used his opposition research to the fullest extent in the game against Spain, making save after save before dumping them out in the penalty shootout.

As a result, Morocco’s years of investments in local grassroots football, the domestic league and tapping into a sizeable football-mad diaspora based across Europe are finally bearing fruit. As reported by Pan African Football in 2020, a news site run by historian and football scout Andrew Olsson, improving the standard of the beautiful game in Morocco, has been a passion project for King Mohammed VI.

Having ruled the country since 1999, King Mohammed VI funded the construction of a football academy that has funnelled talent into Morocco’s professional league system, the Botola, as well as top level leagues overseas. The increase in standard of Moroccan football, combined with large pre-existing fanbases meant that Moroccan clubs experienced a resurgence in the African Champions League in the last five years, compared to the 2000s when clubs from Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria dominated the competition.

With the domestic base settled, the final step was uniting players from the vast Moroccan diaspora, scattered across France, Spain, the Netherlands and shores afar, to raise the overall performance standards of the side. Many of the current squad’s stars — Hakim Ziyech, Sofiane Boufal, Romain Saiss, Achraf Hakimi and Bounou — were either born overseas or currently ply their trade overseas. But they were never this consistent in putting away chances or preventing goals at the biggest stage under Halihodzic or Herve Renard. Fine margins matter greatly in World Cup football results but it was ultimately a French-born Botola winning and Champions League winning Moroccan coach in Regragui who has taken them to the next level.

Also read: ‘They’ve to be afraid’ — Morocco’s Hakimi up against country of birth, Spain, at FIFA World Cup

Moving past the World Cup’s African atrocities

Overall, Morocco’s run has featured a mix of tactical efficiency, resource utilisation as well as the standard euphoria and high drama that has accompanied every FIFA World Cup. Amid all the statistics and tactical analyses, it is the emotional side that will continue to dominate the discourse, precisely because of the past failures of African sides to make their mark.

Ghana were the last to reach the quarter-finals in South Africa 2010, cruelly eliminated by a Luis Suarez goal-blocking handball as Asamoah Gyan failed to capitalise on the subsequent penalty awarded. Before the Black Stars, it was Senegal in 2002 under the late Bruno Metsu who beat France and Sweden but lost to Turkey on a golden goal in the last eight. Aside from that, African nations made it past the group stage on just seven occasions including Morocco since 1998, the first edition to feature 32 countries, five of them from Africa. Russia 2018 was the nadir with zero African teams reaching the round of 16.

No other footballing confederation barring Oceania has had such a poor hit rate given the quota offered, as South America and Asia have achieved more with a similar allocation over the same time period. Morocco themselves experienced several cases of being “so close yet so far”, outvoted on hosting rights twice and handed the group of death four years ago — two heartbreaking 1-0 defeats to Iran and Portugal ended their tournament early, with Nordin Amrabat’s “VAR is bullshit!” gesture to the camera summing up their frustrations.

And this is hardly surprising, given the numerous reports across multiple World Cups of African football federations and local infrastructure beset with corruption and mismanagement from the top — notorious cases include Ghanaian players’ contract dispute in 2014 and the volatile behaviour of Cameroon’s federation head Samuel Eto’o this time around.

Qatar 2022 has seen the tide turn somewhat, with no verified explanations over certain star-studded sides losing form or some players seemingly unable to retain stamina amid the crowded club football season and the change in calendar to accommodate the World Cup. But the results show a possible narrowing of the gap between the big teams and smaller teams in international football. While the odds remain stacked against Morocco given Portugal’s marked improvement shown in their 6-1 demolition of Switzerland, another European scalp could well coin Regragui’s side as the Mighty Maghrebs rewriting Africa’s footballing history.

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