On December 6th, at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Morocco was again playing in the round of 16 of the World Cup after 36 years. He met one of the favourites for the tournament in Qatar, Spain, which means he had a second chance. But Walid Regragui, appointed as a coach not even 4 months ago, taught his players that no one is unbeatable, and they have proved it so far at the World Cup.
In 1986, Morocco became the first African national team to advance from the groups at the World Cup. In Mexico, the “Atlas Lions” finished first in a group with England, Poland and Portugal. They drew without goals against the first two, before excitingly winning the decider against the Lusitanians, score 3-1. The payoff was a duel with future finalist West Germany in the round of 16. The Germans prevailed with difficulty, 1-0, thanks to a late goal scored by Lothar Matthaus.
Since then, the Moroccans, who made their debut at the World Cup in 1970, when they managed to bring Africa their first ever point at the final tournaments, have not made it past the groups. In 1994, they lost all 3 matches. In 1998, Mustapha Hadji scored one of the goals of the tournament against Norway, but the Africans finished 3rd in their group behind Brazil and Norway. In 2018, with Hervé Renard on the bench, they played bravely and spectacularly, but only took one point and came last in the group with Spain, Portugal and Iran.
The team that went to the World Cup in Qatar had the quality to end a nearly four-decade wait to qualify for the last 16. Morocco has players from important names in Europe: Yassine Bounou (Sevilla), Achraf Hakimi (PSG), Noussair Mazraoui (Bayern), Sofyan Amrabat (Fiorentina), Sofiane Boufal (Angers), Youssef En-Nesyri (Sevilla) and , above all, the big star, Hakim Ziyech (Chelsea). But there is a lot of uncertainty. First of all, because the Africans had an extremely strong group, with Croatia and Belgium, that is the runner-up of the last edition and the 3rd place from 4 years ago, and Canada, who came with enthusiasm for the first World Cup qualification after 36 years. Secondly, the Moroccan national team changed their coach a short time ago.
The former coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, was sacked in August, due to the conflict he had with Ziyech. In his place was appointed Walid Regragui, 46 years old, former international, with 45 appearances in the national team. What recommended him for the job was the fact that he won the African Champions League in May in his first year on Wydad’s bench.
After the change from the bench, Ziyech and Mazraoui, another player in conflict with the former coach, returned to the team, and Regragui managed to galvanize his footballers and create an excellent atmosphere within the squad. It was the first step. The latter, as a former defender, turned the Moroccan national team into a team with a solid defense, which hardly concedes a goal. In the 6 games played since September, the Africans have conceded only one goal. And that at a time when the World Cup round of 16 qualification was practically decided.
In the first match in Qatar, Morocco drew with 2018 finalists Croatia (0-0). The reference moment, however, was the splendid victory against Belgium, score 2-0. The goals came in the final 20 minutes, but the superiority of the Africans over Roberto Martinez’s stars was evident throughout the game. Regragui knew how to keep his enthusiasm in check and his boys did not miss the decisive match for the qualification, against Canada. They even solved the match after less than 25 minutes, when they broke away at 2-0. In the end, it was 2-1, with Morocco conceding the only goal of the current coach’s tenure.
Considered a difficult character and a moody footballer, Ziyech was Morocco’s number 1 man in Qatar. The quality of the Chelsea player is beyond any doubt, and Regragui has the credit of having motivated him well enough for the former “lancer” to give his best. He was named man of the match in both the win over Belgium and Canada, scoring once and providing an assist.
“A lot of people talk about him, that he’s a crazy guy and difficult to manage or that he can’t help the team. I believe that when you show him affection and trust, he might die for you. That’s exactly what I do. He’s a big player, from a big team in Europe and you can see he’s a different player when he comes to the national team,” said Regragui, referring to his star.
Against Spain, the management of Walid Regragui and the form of Hakim Ziyech was crucial in Morocco’s bid to surpass their performance of 36 years ago.