Since 1934, when Egypt took part for the first time at the FIFA World Cup, African teams have always been present in the world football flagship competition. But until Qatar 2022, no team has ever managed to progress between the best four teams in the world. Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 went the closest, but they all were eliminated in the quarter-finals.
Now, the new sensation of football, Morocco, delivered a tournament for the ages, eliminating powerhouses like Belgium, Spain and Portugal on their way to the semi-finals of Qatar 2022, becoming both the first African country to reach the business end of the competition, as well as the first Arab country in history to secure this achievement.
“We are becoming a team everyone loves because we are showing what we can achieve. If you show the passion, heart and belief, you can succeed and my players have shown that. It is not a miracle – those in Europe might say it is, but we have beaten Portugal, Spain, Belgium and drawn against Croatia without conceding. That is the result of hard work,” said Morocco coach, Walid Regragui, after the win against Portugal, 1-0, in the quarter-finals at Qatar 2022.
Indeed, Morocco has proven to be a true trailblazer in this edition of the FIFA World Cup, delivering excellent performances time and time again, despite being considered underdogs in all but one of the matches.
These excellent results were not only due to their defence, which is yet to concede a goal scored by opponents, as the 2-1 win against Canada was marked by an own goal scored by central defender Nayef Aguerd, but it was also a well-thought plan that really kept everybody on their toes, with lightning counter attacks that hit their mark in spectacular fashion.
A mixture of talent, highlighted by captain Hakim Ziyech, left wing Sofiane Boufal, right back Achraf Hakimi or left back Noussair Mazraoui was bolstered by hard working players like goalkeeper Bono, or midfielders Azzedine Ounahi and Sofyan Amrabat, with Regragrui overseeing a well-balanced side that worked wonders at Qatar 2022.
“African and Arab teams work hard but we have made our people happy and proud. The whole continent is proud. When you watch Rocky Balboa, you want to support him and we are the Rocky of this World Cup,” added the coach who only took over Morocco in August 2022.
Morocco delivered excellent performances throughout the competition, including eliminating Spain in a penalty shoot-out, where the former world champions did not convert a single shot, also thanks to the excellent support from the stands, where their fans became the 12th player of the team.
It is a perfect symbiosis between players, the manager and the fans, the perfect setting for the team to thrive and write history on their own, with Morocco having never gotten further than the second round of the FIFA World Cup in 1986.
“We are here to change the mentality and get rid of the inferiority. Morocco is out to face anyone in the world, beyond the semi-finals and anything else. We have changed this mentality and the generation coming after us will know Moroccan players can create miracles. I have great players with me and they are all fantastic. When anyone faces Morocco now, they know they can play at the highest level,” said Morocco’s goalkeeper Bono.
Indeed, changing the mentality is crucial for African sides, with them falling short of reaching the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup in 48 instances. In total, 13 different nations – Egypt, Morocco, Zaire, Tunisia, Algeria, Cameroon, South Africa, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Angola – have tried but fell short of the challenge.
Only seven of them made it from the group phase into the second round, with Morocco being the first one ever to seal that berth in 1986. Then Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Algeria and Senegal followed, but it is just apt that the “Atlas Lions” were the ones delivering history time and time again.
36 years have passed since the previous qualification from the group phase for Morocco and in the meantime, they won a single game from the nine they played at three different editions of the FIFA World Cup.
Pride, belief in the team, and confidence that they will leave everything on the pitch are a lock in this edition of the FIFA World Cup for the tens of thousands of fans that flocked to Qatar to support Morocco, as well as for the millions of others that took on the streets in Paris, Dusseldorf, Bruxelles or other cities in Western Europe to celebrate the performance.
“But if you put in the heart, desire and humility you make your own luck. The energy from the African and Arab people gave us good vibes. Everyone was behind us and we have made this fantastic achievement and got into the history books. We are into the best four in the world. These are tremendous players and deserve all the plaudits they get,” added Regragui after the win against Portugal.
“We have shown people African teams can get to the semi-final, even the final. Earlier in the tournament, I was asked if we can win the World Cup – why not? Why shouldn’t we dream? “If you don’t dream, you don’t get anywhere and dreams don’t cost anything. European teams are used to winning the World Cup. Now we have to get in there and go beyond ourselves,” concluded the Morocco coach.
Now a date with destiny awaits. France are the reigning champions and the country where two Morocco players – captain Romain Saiss and winger Sofiane Boufal – were born. It will be the toughest match yet. But with a dream in mind and with the whole of Africa and the Arab world cheering for them, they might just break out another surprise.