Morocco Eye Another Upset Against France
Having seen off three of Europe’s strongest sides, and drawn with Croatia, Morocco will go into the semifinal against France with no fear. Their Rocky story could have another surprise twist or two.
It was George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher, who said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the case of Moroccan football, there was never any danger of the past being forgotten, yet, even they would have been stunned by the manner in which it repeated itself.
Having made their World Cup debut in 1970, when they earned a first point for Africa by drawing with Bulgaria, Morocco had to wait until 1986 for their next invitation to football’s global showpiece. They started that campaign with 0-0 draws against Poland and England, setting up a winner-takes-all clash with Portugal in the final group game.
The Portuguese had taken France, hosts and eventual champions, to extra time in an epic semifinal at Euro ’84, and had started the World Cup by beating England. To say that they were heavily fancied would be an understatement. But close on the heels of the celebrations to mark 30 years of independence from France and Spain, it was Morocco that sent millions in Casablanca, Tangier, Rabat, Fez and Marrakech into a frenzy by marching into the second round.
They did so emphatically too, with a 3-1 win. A brace from Abderrazak Khairi, who played all his club football in Morocco, set them on their way, and Abdelkrim Merry – who had starred alongside the legendary Johnny Rep of the Netherlands in Bastia’s run to the UEFA Cup final in 1978 – added a third. Badou Zaki, their captain and goalkeeper, was rarely threatened, and there was delight all across Africa and the Arab world as they became the first team from the region to make it to the second round.
All these years later, Morocco had to scrap a lot harder to see off an even stronger Portuguese outfit. In the hullaballoo surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo’s demotion to the bench, it was easy to forget that the Portuguese had romped to a 6-1 win in their previous game, against a Swiss side known for its solidity.
In many ways, it was also fitting that Yassine Bounou, the goalkeeper who has won the Europa League during his three years with Sevilla, had such a big part to play, making a magnificent diving save to deny Joao Felix and then thwarting Ronaldo as he tried to slam one in at the near post.
Back in 1986, Zaki was the undoubted star of the side. Superb in the group stages, he was equal to everything West Germany threw at him in the round of 16 clash. Morocco more than matched their illustrious opponents over the 90 minutes, but were undone by a curling free kick from Lothar Mattheus in the 87th minute. The sight of an irate Zaki berating the players who had failed to stay in their positions in the defensive wall is one of the enduring memories of that tournament.
The years since haven’t really been kind to the national team. Though Moroccan clubs have won the African Champions League seven times – Raja CA and Wydad AC both have 3 wins – the national team has reached the last four of the African Cup of Nations just once in the three decades since Zaki retired.
That was in 2004, when Zaki coached the team and they lost 2-1 to Tunisia, their bitter rivals, in the final. Their only World Cup win after 1986 had come against Scotland in the 1998 edition. To say that they have scripted a Rocky Balboa-like fairytale, as Walid Regragui, their coach, put it, is no exaggeration.
Just consider the enormity of their achievements in Qatar. Spain and Portugal, beaten in back-to-back knockout games, were ranked 7th and 9th in the FIFA rankings before the tournament began. Belgium, convincingly beaten in the group phase, were No.2. Croatia, fellow semifinalists who they held to a draw in their opening game, were at No.12. Morocco? Ranked No.22, behind even Wales and Iran.
They also took on Portugal with two of their first-choice back four – Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui and West Ham’s Nayef Aguerd – ruled out. Midway through the game, Romain Saiss, captain and centre-back, also limped out. Jawad El Yamiq and Yahia Attiyat Allah, who came into the XI, had 12 and 2 caps when the tournament began. Achraf Dari, who replaced the injured Saiss, had 4. Yet, each of them was immense in repelling a Portuguese side boasting a wealth of attacking options.
Azzedine Ounahi put in an incredible shift in midfield. Slimly built like Steven Gerrard in his teens, Ounahi’s boundless energy was a key component of Morocco’s rapid breakaways, and also in their tracking back to foil Portuguese raids. Sofyan Amrabat was almost faultless in the defensive midfield role, taking possession in tight spaces and playing his way out of trouble.
As for the decisive goal, Youssef En-Nesyri’s leap and header off what was a fairly average cross from Attiyat Allah would have done Ronaldo himself proud. They should have had a second goal too soon after half-time, and it needed a smart save from Diogo Costa to stop Zakaria Aboukhlal’s chip as Morocco countered at lightning speed in the final stages.
Apart from the match against Canada, ironically their worst display, Morocco have been counted out before every game they’ve played at this World Cup. It will be no different against France, who are 180 minutes away from becoming the first team to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962.
But after Tunisia embarrassed them in the group stage, France will not take Morocco lightly. Each of their former North African colonies summons up a special spirit and energy when they play the French. And there’s the small matter of familiarity as well. Ounahi, for example, currenly plays for Angers in Ligue 1, but was plying his trade in France’s third tier 18 months ago. Sofiane Boufal, his Angers teammate, and Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi are the famous names in their French contingent, while Dari also plays in France for Brest.
Kylian Mbappe, France’s danger man, has an Algerian mother, and you can bet that the intensity will be full on when the semifinal kicks off. With their defence decimated, and the talismanic Hakim Ziyech limping off against Portugal, Morocco could struggle against a French side that have reached this far without ever really needing to move into top gear. But as other fancied sides have discovered, you write Morocco off at your peril. This incredible football version of Rocky may have another surprising twist or two.