When the groups for the ongoing World Cup in Qatar were announced, not many expected Morocco to reach the knockout stages, given that they were set to face Croatia, the runners-up of the 2018 tournament in Russia, Belgium, widely believed to be a top-class team on their last chance to leave a mark on international football, and Canada, a fine team of rising stars.
Fast forward three matches in and Morocco won Group F with seven points, two more than Croatia and three more than Belgium. Canada sat on the bottom without a single point.
It was clear at that point for anyone who wanted to see, that this team, without any proper superstars in their ranks, boasts supreme quality. Spain were possibly the next top team to learn that the hard way, having lost their last group match to Japan in order to, as some conspiracy theorists have claimed, make sure Germany didn’t progress and that they wouldn’t face Croatia.
As it turned out, 77% of meaningless possession wasn’t enough for the 2010 World Cup winners to get the job done, and the clash remained goalless through more than 120 minutes before Morocco won on penalties. It was Portugal next, and Cristiano Ronaldo left the pitch crying after Youssef En-Nesyri scored the only goal and broke the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s dream of adding the most prestigious trophy the game has to offer to his impressive collection.
It still sounds amazing, but Morocco were in the semifinals, among the four best teams on the planet.
The team under the command of Walid Regragui gave France a really good game on Wednesday evening, dropping every pretence of coming to defend after going 1-0 down in the third minute. They were actually the team which had the ball under their control significantly more (62%) and took a total of 13 shots, prompting some fine saves from Hugo Lloris and hitting the woodwork too. But it wasn’t to be. Their concentration wavered as the game approached its end and with 11 minutes to go, France substitute Randal Kolo Muani burried their dreams of playing in the final with his first touch of the game.
The pride of a continent
Nonetheless, Morocco have become the first African country ever to reach the semifinals of the World Cup, going one step further than Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010. These players have certainly done great honor to their country and lifted the hopes of their entire continent about going all the way at some point in the future.
❌ Knocked out Spain & Portugal
⛔️ Four clean sheets
🔝 Topped Group F
☑️ First African nation to reach the semi-final of a World Cup
This Morocco team made history 🇲🇦#FIFAWorldCup #MAR pic.twitter.com/gi6MBlftAY
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) December 14, 2022
Branded by most as underdogs throughout, the Morocco players won hearts across the globe both on and off the pitch, playing an extremely disciplined and creative game, forming a truly formidable unit, but also by bringing their mothers to the stadiums and celebrating their triumphs with them and giving the world a lot of highly emotional moments to witness.
The standout performers
Morocco’s success in Qatar has obviously been a team effort, but there have been several players whose quality drove them on. Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech was a constant problem for opposition defences coming in off the right attacking flank, as was Paris Saint-Germain right-back Achraf Hakimi, contributing at both ends of the pitch in equal measure.
Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou was on top of his game, turning up for his team time and again, as was his teammate at club level, striker En-Nesyri. Midfielder Sofyan Amrabat has been superb in his holding role, and Fiorentina will struggle to keep hold of him in 2023 with top clubs across Europe reportedly keen on his services.
One more dance
The semifinal defeat to France was obviously not the last match Morocco will play at this World Cup. On Saturday, 24 hours before the final they wanted so much to be a part of, they will face Croatia again, this time in the battle for bronze after Zlatko Dalic’s men lost their semifinal to Argentina.
Their meeting in the opening round of Group F on November 23rd was an interesting one, even though it yielded no goals. Both teams, especially Morocco, took a cautious approach, testing the water before diving in head-first. Now, the stakes are different, the motivation is different, and both sides obviously come into this contest on the back of a huge disappointment, to fight for what will surely feel like consolation prize.
But while Croatia may feel that they’ve taken a step down after reaching the final in Russia, for Morocco, it will be another chance to reach greater heights than they had probably hoped for, and that may well prove the difference between the two sides.
Regardless of how it ends, Morocco have done superbly in Qatar and they have doubtlessly been the most pleasant surprise of the World Cup.
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