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The true leader: Morocco’s “Maldini” anchors astonishing performance from the “Atlas Lions” at Qatar 2022

The best African team to ever feature at the FIFA World Cup, a bunch of misfits pulled together and delivered an excellent performance, the surprise of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. We have heard it all time and time again, as Morocco delivered vintage performances against Belgium, Croatia, Spain and Portugal and became the first African and Arab side to progress to the semi-finals of the competition.

It was truly a remarkable achievement, as the team was really a team, stars let their ego aside and worked together and fringe players got a share of the action and captured the minds of the whole football world. Sure, they might have fallen in their latest test, the semi-final against France, 0-2, but Morocco will surely be remembered as the big underdog that got things right at Qatar 2022.

Sure, everyone will remember Youssef En Nesyri’s goal against Portugal or Bono’s excellent penalty saves against Spain, but there is no player that embodies the spirit of the “Atlas Lions” better than captain Romain Saiss.

Born in Bourg-de-Peage, a village in the East of France, Saiss started playing football at Valence, in the fifth tier of the French football pyramid and never played in the Moroccan league, yet was a leader on and off the pitch, having worked hard and truly embodied the ethos of this Morocco side since early in his life.

“When I was young I watched my parents work very hard. I was playing in France semi-professionally at the time, but the money was not enough. I got 500 euros but that just about covered my petrol. So I worked in my father’s restaurant to help him. I was only allowed to wash the dishes and give out the menus. He paid me a small amount. But it was important for me to see and to know the work because it was hard to work,” Saiss told when he was playing for Wolverhampton Wanderers, in the Premier League.

Soon, Saiss’ star grew and featured for Clermont, Le Havre and Angers, before signing for Wolverhampton in 2016, when the team was still playing in the Championship, the second English league.

Yet his talent was so big, his leadership skills so important to the team that he was even nicknamed “Maldini” by the Wolves fans, who immediately adopted Saiss as one of their own.

At 32 years old, this was always going to be one of the last shots for Saiss to write a piece of history with Morocco, a team he has been representing since 2012, featuring in 72 games for the “Atlas Lions”. He could have played for France, but he never intended to. Instead, he became a leader and a star for the Morocco team.

He featured twice at Russia 2018, when Morocco failed to progress from the group, but became paramount in the team as he entered his prime and captained the side more than any other player at the FIFA World Cup.

“I was never in an academy or anything like that. I signed my first contract when I was 21. I know that work is very important. And I never forget my targets. Even at school when my professors said forget football, I never forgot my targets. That mentality is why I am still here,” added Saiss in an interview for the “Express and Star” newspaper.

He thrived at Wolverhampton, having played 206 games and scoring 15 goals between 2016 and 2022, when he chose to move to Turkish side Besiktas Istanbul, as his speed started to dwindle as he aged.

Yet for Morocco, Saiss was the heart and soul of the team, a true captain, that truly embodied what was going on in the side during Qatar 2022. Before the game against France, Morocco conceded a single goal – an own goal from Nayef Aguerd in the match against Canada.

Belgium, Croatia, Portugal or Spain – all European powerhouses – failed to score against Morocco and Saiss’ defence, creating a tournament to remember for Morocco fans.

“If you want to achieve something at this tournament, you need everyone on the same page and pulling in the same direction,” said Saiss.

Against France, Morocco had some chances but failed to convert them, while the reigning world champions delivered in spades. Yet Saiss was left in tears, as a previous injury sustained against Portugal prevented him to play more than 21 minutes.

He took his armband off and went to the bench, sitting there, impossible to do anything on the pitch. However, the loss will only add to Morocco’s resilience. And if they are there in the next edition of the FIFA World Cup, one could bet that Saiss will still be around, delivering excellent performances.

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