The last remaining Arab nation goes deep into the desert World Cup.
It had to be Morocco, the ecosystem that produced Hicham el Guerrouj has created a team of athletes fronted by Champions League operators Achraf Hakimi of Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea’s suave attacker Hakim Ziyech.
The Atlas Lions are suddenly contenders to do the unthinkable at Qatar 2022. All the ingredients are at Walid Regragui’s fingertips; the diaspora making them a feared football force.
And next up comes Spain, their near neighbour from across the Strait of Gibraltar, at Education City Stadium next Tuesday at 3pm.
This tournament might as well be happening in Casablanca, such is the Moroccan support; red-with-green-star flags are draped across millions of expatriates working in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands live in Doha, many in the Al Thumama district.
They stuffed into the shiny stadium, and as Croatia and Belgium scraped to 0-0 across town, everyone raised their phones in the sky and sang ‘Olé, Olé, Olé’. Similar to the Brazilian and Argentinian fans, they refused to lose faith, infusing their flagging players with enough energy to survive.
It was needed as roaming Bayern Munich full back Alphonso Davies ensured that Canada did not hobble out of this weird World Cup.
“Morocco came out blood boiling,” said Canadian manager John Herdman, “it wasn’t even tactical, just about matching their intensity and pace. We bent but we didn’t break.”
Canada did break, in fact, on three occasions, scoring only twice and conceding seven goals.
Mercifully for Morocco, earlier strikes by Ziyech and the long-legged Youssef En-Nesyri proved enough to survive Nayef Aguerd’s own goal five minutes before half-time.
“I am going to talk in Moroccan dialect,” said Regragui, the French-born manager. “The own goal shook us and the players began thinking of ‘The Curse’ that affected us in previous World Cups but look at Hakimi, all Moroccans should praise him, he was injured but he played. He is extraordinary.
“We had to change our mindset,” he continued. “We had to do what European and South American teams do, to win like France and Argentina. They come with a plan. We didn’t want to fall prey to the negativity.
“We need to duplicate the rigorous European style with our own identity. If we do this we will win.”
The World Cup?
“Why not aim for the sky?” said Regragui. “Why not dream of winning that trophy, African teams need to do that, we are difficult to beat, we know what we are worth. If fit, we are capable of great things, inshallah.”
The players gave Regragui the Pep Guardiola treatment after, tossing him into the evening sky, while lovingly slapping his bald dome.
Hakimi, an iconic figure from North Africa to Paris, spoke in English: “I see team-mates at PSG win the World Cup and I want to be like them.”
Canada failed to land a shot on Bono’s goal but Atiba Hutchinson’s header did bounce off the line in a calamitous finale.
Moroccan football makes a giant leap then, the first since beating Portugal 3-1 at Mexico ‘86, after King Mohammed VI increased investment with the aim of hosting the World Cup in 2026. That died on the vine, their fifth unsuccessful bid since 1994, but manager Regragui successfully targeted the exiled children of Maghreb.
Moroccans, like the Irish, are a nomadic tribe, except there are 40 million of them back at home. There are so many special stories. Like Goulmima, a tiny inland oasis with a population of under 18,000 Berbers which was once home to Sampdoria midfielder Abdelhamid Sabiri until his family moved to Germany when he was three.
Six of the starting XI were born in Europe and one in Montreal, Canada, where Yassine Bounou (or just Bono) began life before building a career in La Liga.
The unsung hero is Sofyan Amrabat of Fiorentina, who Regragui visited in Italy last summer to tell him how close he was to becoming a world-class holding midfielder. That step is now complete.
These second-generation Moroccan teenagers received football educations in French, Belgian, Spanish and Dutch academies, before bringing their technical advancement back home. As it should be. It’s how Irish football briefly lived among the football gods during the 1990s.
Such astute piggybacking was aimed at having a serious football team in place when the big show came to Morocco but it skipped them for North America after Qatar won the 2022 edition in highly controversial circumstances.
Still, Regragui did his job, the main priority being Ziyech’s return to the fold. Nicknamed ‘The Wizard’ by Ajax fans before his switch to London, Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic needed to be sacked last August to facilitate the promotion of Reragui, who promptly recalled and reconstructed the team around the Dutch-born magician.
Ziyech scored after three minutes as if he was clipping his first ball of the warm-up. Steven Vitória’s back pass short-changed Milan Borjan but the Canadian goalkeeper made a terrible error, his heavy touch allowing Ziyech lob to an empty net.
It was 2-0 before Canada could start cracking some Moroccan bones but En-Nesyri’s ridiculous pace burned Kamal Miller and Vitoria, who tried to decapitate him anyway, after Hakimi’s weighted long ball.
Then came the freeze, a realisation that they were on the edge of history, unhelped by Sam Adekube nutmegging Hakimi, getting to the end line where he shot off Aguerd and past Bono at the near post.
The Moroccan crowd never wavered, saving them as much as they saved themselves.