Hakim Ziyech, a magician at the heart of Moroccan love story

The World Cup has been brought to life, and Arab and African pride asserted, by the Atlas Lions, whose adventure is far from finished

Hakim Ziyech is the wizard. Morocco’s World Cup odyssey was always going to come down to his left foot.

At Education City on Tuesday night, in between Bono’s strong-arm saves and Achraf Hakimi’s Panenka penalty, Ziyech broke Spain by thumping the second penalty past Unai Simón.

Afterwards, we return to Doha National Library in time to see Ronaldo’s disallowed goal on the Oasis ‘pub’ screen, but sipping Stella Artois in an artificial Fifa beer garden feels wrong.

The Metro into Doha confirms as much. The World Cup is happening at Msheireb station where Moroccans, Spaniards, Swiss and Portuguese criss-cross in a blur of red.

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We walk the last mile home. Nomadic North Africans do the same. At street level we encounter the Bud-zero version of Marrakesh, Rabat, Casablanca. No red and green painted horses, no waft of hashish, but the same outpouring of joy.

Morocco, what have you done to Doha? The stroll into Souq Waqif, across the eastern courtyards where lyrical African “Metro men” still direct human traffic at 2am, provides a rare thrill.

The World Cup is alive, finally. Blaring car horns stun the senses. All Moroccans. Dancing Arabs along the Corniche. All Moroccans. Soft drums colliding as women discard head scarfs. Definitely Moroccans.

We get to bed at 3.30am. Sober, full of memories.

On this night what resonates in a country overwhelmingly populated by South Asian males – who like to hold each other and lock fingers – is the number of women and children visible on the roads.

Shisha-puffing Moroccan men, but families too, all delirious, all wearing caped flags. All spine-tinglingly awake, wanting this night to never end.

Spain are gone, dismissed by Hakim and Hakimi.

The absence of alcohol helps rather than hinders, as news breaks of a legal spat between Qatar’s supreme committee and Fifa, with Budweiser stuck in a moment they can’t get out of. Eh, Bono?

Plenty of Moroccan women keep their headscarves firmly attached. “We are not Iranian, we do as we please,” says one. Many remain devout Muslims, especially the mothers and grannies, but their kids run wild. Definitely Moroccans. Their coarser Arabic, their Berber tongue-yelps, are less lyrical when put against Middle East dialects. More Tallaght than south Kerry.

Moroccan women are always confrontational, playfully so, especially after beating Spain. Three young mammies with prams think we are Argentinian.

No, guess where?

“Pfff, al’iinjilizia.”

Not English, Irish.

Wide-eyed. (“Does he speak our tongue?”).

“Aw you miss le-beer-ah, eh?” she says in Arabic.

No, happy sober, I say in Arabic. They freak out.

Right up in your grill. It’s their nature. They live in a Muslim society, they also live in a deeply contradictory society, that works more than you could imagine.

We ask for the yell. It’s the sound we hear coming down the steps of Al Thumama after Spain’s 1,050 passes came to nothing. A uniquely female song of the Berber tribe, an expression of Moroccan warmth.

The Tzeghrita (Zeg-Er-Iz-kAhh) – say it while rolling your tongue backwards – is a wedding chant that has become their Fields of Athenry.

“We Arabs are a people,” says Walid Regragui, the young manager born to Moroccans in a Parisian suburb, using his parents dialect on live television. “When Arabs remove a selfish attitude, they can become really great.” He means tall poppy syndrome.

“African people, Arabic people, a lot of people pray for us, alhamdulillah.”

In 2012, three years after winning his 35th and last cap for Morocco, Regragui became the national team’s assistant manager, returning as the boss last August when Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic was dramatically sacked.

He’s European but Arab. On Canal+ he switches to French, speaking to the exiled: “The happiest man on the planet today is me.”

The European-American-Arabian Moroccans dreamt of this moment; concrete footballers, born in the squalor of Dutch and French high-rises.

Fourteen of this 26-man squad were born outside Morocco. Beating Spain on penalties is like Ireland beating England in Stuttgart, jumping on a plane to New Jersey and scalping Italy, all on the same day. Ray Houghton and Paul McGrath neatly replaced by Hakimi and Ziyech, who swallowed his creative juices to act as an auxiliary wing-back.

Because Regragui asked him to, whispering in Dutch, relating to a man who lost his Moroccan father at 10-years-old to multiple sclerosis.

“I remember it well, it was winter, just after Christmas,” said Ziyech in 2020 before Chelsea paid Ajax €40 million for him. “My father was in bed in the livingroom. He was sick for some time. Eventually I fell asleep on the edge of his bed with him.

“A few hours later, around 3am, I heard family members crying downstairs. I went to the livingroom. My father was dead. And there you are, a 10-year-old boy. I didn’t go to school any more. Football didn’t matter to me either. I was completely gone.”

Ziyech barely evaded a life of substance abuse in the Dutch town of Dronten because Aziz Doufikar, the first Moroccan to play in the Eredivisie, took him under his wing. By 13, the youngest of nine children was so skilled he moved in with a host family in Heerenveen, playing under Marco van Basten, only to sign for Twente at 21, choosing Ajax over Burnley in 2016, which must have felt like the zenith.

It makes these World Cup nights the dream hours. If Morocco are to keep going, Ziyech must wake up. The squad possess the tools to do the unthinkable: the Champions League-calibre defence, the midfield beast Sofyan Amrabat, the rangy Youssef En-Nesyri, the freakish Azzedine Ounahi and Ziyech, the Dutch boy with Moroccan blood and a Moroccan heart.

Seven years ago, Ziyech was named in the Netherlands squad only to about-face and declare for Morocco, a decision Van Basten called “stupid.”

“Van Basten is a good name but not a top-level coach,” Ziyech replied. “Choosing one’s national team is not done with the brain but with the heart.

“I have always felt Moroccan even though I was born in the Netherlands. Lots of people will never understand.”

Ziyech’s tough spirit endeared him to the Atlas Lions’ cause, all except for Halilhodzic, who made the fatal mistake in 2021 of stating: “I don’t select a player who can unbalance the group.”

Sacking Halilhodzic so close to the World Cup was a shock, as during the 26 games Ziyech sat out between 2021 and 2022, Morocco won 20, losing only three. They were flying high under the Bosnian’s rigid system but Regragui is aiming for the moon.

“A lot of people talk about Hakim, saying he is a crazy guy,” Regragui said after Belgium were beaten, “that he is a difficult guy to manage, that he can’t help the team. For me, when you give him the love and the confidence he will die for you.

“It’s like Neymar for Brazil or Mbappé for France, you can’t just see him as another player, he’s your best player,” Regragui repeated after Morocco outmuscled Spain. “I show him love and respect because it’s what he deserves.”

Regragui also loves a microphone.

“Today I think it is impossible that Man City or Barcelona would hire an Arab coach, as if we are ignorant, as if we are unworthy,” he said on Friday. “However there comes a time when people have to change their mind, they have to change their culture. African managers, statistically and mathematically, are showing that they can coach at great clubs in Europe.”

“Ten years I am a coach, and nobody looked at me. Oh, no, it is impossible, he does not have experience. Explain this miracle to me, we are in a World Cup quarter-final. Experience does not matter, skills are the only measure, and then we will see.”

The Moroccan journalists are at fever pitch.

“We will fight for you Mr Regragu!”

“Did you see our King come into the streets? The King came out among the people after we beat Spain on penalties!”

“You are our pride Mr Regragui!”

Regragui responds: “We have our people behind us, a whole contingent, the entire Arab world, so hopefully we can tap into that energy. We have a plan. If Portugal beat us, we will applaud them.”

You want English, Spanish, Egyptian-Arabic, no problem. Regragui obliges. Except for the LA Times question after the Canada game.

“Are you Scottish! Or a Londoner? I cannot understand. Sorry, I am tired.”

The Californian asks about the exiled.

“Every Moroccan is Moroccan with his passport. You have some players born in Italy, some players from Spain, players from France, Netherlands and Belgium. Every country has a football culture, and you make a milkshake with that.”

That’s how Moroccans circumnavigate the globe; on their wits with two passports and the ability to dance between many tongues.

Nearly home. The Tzeghrita never stops. It’s part scream, part gullet cough, all madness.

“What are you, Dutch?”

Irish.

“No glug glug glug,” another buggie-pusher laughs, sinking her imaginary pint.

Some stereotypes die hard. We walk among “yella, yella” chants and drums, watching curious Qataris and Saudis, their negative perceptions of North Africans ruined.

By Thursday, Doha feels like its cruel self again, the exhausted workers are close to collapse, with far too many young people who are serving this World Cup in dire need of a day off. No unions, no voice. Thousands of temporary Fifa staff are airport-bound as the tournament fizzles out and winter arrives in the Middle East; the pandemonium caused by Arabs in a distant Arab land proves fleeting.

The Moroccans linger, many live in the region, believing this shindig should be happening in their ancient cities. They bid for five tournaments, King Mohammed VI built an academy, unearthed second-generational talent via clever scouting, lured them home before the Dutch, Spanish, Belgians and French could unearth another Zidane.

Another Ziyech.