Morocco’s miracle run continues, instilling belief they can win it all
WALID Regragui, the Moroccan coach scripting history at the World Cup in Qatar, has an infectious smile that lights up the room. His joy knew no bounds on Saturday night; Morocco continuing their miracle run at the World Cup by ousting yet another European heavyweights Portugal and, in his own words, dreaming of glory now. Two more wins would do that.
If Regragui manages to make Morocco the first African team to win the World Cup, it would be some year for him. In May, the 47-year-old France-born former Morocco international led Casablanca’s Wydad to the CAF Champions League title; the most prestigious club crown in Africa. Now, the biggest title in the sport is almost within reach.
“When you are a small team you need to dream and believe,” Regragui told a news conference, only minutes after he was tossed in the air by his players as they celebrated their 1-0 win over Portugal in the quarter-final at the Al Thumama Stadium. “We haven’t come to the World Cup to play only three games and make up the numbers. Football is the best sport in the world because it allows you to dream. That’s my message to the team and to the continent [of Africa]. I think the world is now with Morocco.”
Smiling now, Regragui had been in tears in the final few minutes of the match as his players were giving their all to protect a precious lead given to them by Youssef En-Nesyri in the 42nd minute. Regragui’s eyes welled up after Morocco’s immovable object in front of goal, their goalkeeper Yassine Bounou — named player-of-the-match — had saved a first-time shot from Cristiano Ronaldo as Portugal relentlessly chased an equaliser.
“I think it is the first time I cried in a match,” stated Redragui, not in any way hiding his fears. “I tried to control my emotions but sometimes it’s too much. I was afraid of Ronaldo. You know he can score out of nothing and is one of the best players in the world, but Yassine is a great goalkeeper. The emotions come out and it is impossible for Moroccans to control them.”
Morocco’s belief stems from their impregnable defence. The only goal they’ve conceded at the tournament was an own goal against Canada in the group stage. Otherwise, they have shut out four European sides in Belgium, Croatia, Spain — who they defeated on penalties in the last-16, and now Portugal.
It’s an impressive feat considering they started the quarter-final without two of their first-choice defenders with Noussair Mazraoui and Nayef Aguerd out injured. Captain Romain Saiss was stretched off close to the hour mark. Yet, they held on. Jawad Al Yamiq, replacing Aguerd in the heart of Morocco’s defence, was outstanding — even giving Pepe a cheeky kiss on his head when the Portugal defender headed wide late on. Full-back Yahya Attiyat Allah, in place of Mazraoui, provided the cross for En Nesyri to head in. After Saiss’ injury, Badr Benoun came in and slotted in alongside Al Yamiq as Portugal threw the kitchen sink at them.
Their lung-busting midfielder Sofyan Amrabat was the first to address Morocco’s sheer power of will immediately after the final whistle during an interview with the host broadcaster. “We deserve this, 1000%. How we fight, how we play, with our heart for our country, for the people — it’s unbelievable,” he said. “Our spirit, we have injuries, three defenders came in and how they defend, big respect.”
Regragui hailed the spirit of his side. “Everyday you win something, you lose something or someone, but I have 26 players,” reflected Regragui. “If you want to win this tournament, you have to believe in all of them. If one player is sick or injured, you use another one, and he helps the team. This is what Attiyat-Allah did, El Yamiq, Benoun today. Lots of players started today in the World Cup. Thank God! We have a chance, the spirit is good.
“I don’t think my players have run so much in their lives. We weren’t as good as we were against Spain. When you play with heart you give yourself chances. Portugal are such a great team and without that desire and passion you don’t have a chance.”
It’s that passion that is making Regragui, who only got the job three months ago, dream of more. “We are becoming the beloved team of this World Cup,” he added. “It’s no miracle what we’ve achieved here. We’ve beaten Belgium, Spain and Portugal without letting in a goal. We’ve made our people and the continent, as well as people around the world, very proud.
“Why don’t we dream of winning the World Cup? It doesn’t cost anything to dream. We haven’t achieved anything yet but every team who plays us from now on will be afraid because they’ll know that they’re going to have to be at their best to beat us.”
‘CHANGED THE MENTALITY’
Sitting alongside Regragui, Bounou said that Morocco’s run to the semi-final had changed the mentality for future generations and removed an inferiority complex.
“Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming!” said Bounou, before adding, “But as our coach said, we’re here to change the mentality. This feeling of inferiority we’ve had, we need to get rid of it. A Moroccan player can face anyone in the world. The most important thing is we’ve changed this mentality and the generation coming after us will now know a Moroccan team can create miracles.
“It’s really, really hard to find the words to describe this moment. All our team, the supporters on our backs, this is all I have. All the players put in a stellar performance. We had injuries, all the players on the pitch were at the highest level. It’s hard to describe such joy.”
As soon as the news conference ended, Regragui and Bounou headed to the dressing room where the president of the Moroccan Football Federation had come over for a celebration. “They will be here soon,” a FIFA press officer told reporters in the mixed zone; the Portugal players having swiftly exited the arena.
There were smiles and laughter as the Moroccans came through eventually; the other quarter-final between France and England — the game to decide Morocco’s semi-final opponents about to kick-off. Soufiane Boufal, one of 14 players in the Moroccan squad who was born overseas but opted to play for the country of his parents, was hoping to play against the country of his birth.
“I hope to meet France,” said the winger. “We have faced the best nations in the world and we have managed to beat them. I hope this dream doesn’t end now. This is all crazy, we are living a dream and we don’t want to wake up.” His wish came true when France, Morocco’s former colonisers, advanced with a 2-1 victory over England.
Attacking midfielder Abdelhamid Sabiri said Morocco had ended the curse that had seen African sides Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 fall in the quarter-final stage. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. No one thought we could do it. We are taking one match at a time and we want to win every game.”
Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2022