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Morocco’s Incredible World Cup Run, An African Heritage Or An European Inspired Feat?

Written By Jacobs Dunga

The Atlas Lions of Morocco defied all odds to make history for themselves, the Arab world and Africa in general.

When the draws were made for the first winter World Cup on the first of April 2002, little did anyone think that we’d be here discussing how a nation from the North of Africa would smash the odds to emerge as one of the best teams of the mundial.

Drawn in Group F with Belgium who finished third in the last World Cup in 2018, Croatia who finished second after losing the final to France and lastly Canada who dusted all comers in the CONCACAF region with their young and uprising squad to reach Qatar.

Morocco were eliminated from the 2021 AFCON in the quarter finals by Egypt after a 2-1 loss. Despite the disappointment, coach Vahid Halihodzic ensured the North Africans reached the 2022 World Cup after a third round two legged triumph over DR Congo.

How It Started.

Coach Halihodzic on August 11th 2022 was sacked by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation after disagreements with the federation president on the progress of the team.

On August 31, Walid Regragui was appointed as the coach of the Moroccan national team with just three months before the world football showpiece in Qatar. The 47 year old after quitting professional football in 2009 first began his coaching sojourn as assistant manager with the Atlas Lions in 2012.

The French born tactician who had previously led Wydad AC to the Botola Pro and CAF Champions League titles in the 2021/2022 season was deservedly saddled with the hefty task of leading his nation to the World Cup which caused division amongst local fans, some of which questioned his roots and commitment to the Arab nation which led to the unpopular nickname (Avocado head) given to him by dismayed fans.

The Course And Historic Run

On September 21, the journey officially started with a 1-0 victory over Madagascar in a friendly game that received little or no distinction from the fans. He led his well stacked team of soldiers into the tournament where he drew goalless against 2018 finalists Croatia with little given to the supposedly impressive result. The Atlas Lions went on to defeat the Belgian national team with a golden generation of players two nil in their second game and it was at this point that real attention was beginning to creep in for the Lions of Morocco. A 2-1 victory over Canada in the final group game finally put the spotlight on Regragui’s team as they progressed as group winners despite conceding their first goal under the stewardship of their new and exciting talismanic manager.

The course soon started gaining relevance when in the second round game against Spain, Morocco held on for 120 minutes against the 2010 world champions before going on to win 3-0 on penalties with the Spanish born Achraf Hakimi sending the La Roja back to Madrid, his place of birth with a delicate dink of a spot kick down the middle to throw the thirty seven million people of Morocco into undefiled ecstasy.

If the victory over Spain did not fully send signals of the danger and threat posed by the crop of European-trained-African-born assemblage of talents that have been transfigured into a compactly formidable unit by the wonder-working supposedly inexperienced bald headed French born manager, the spirited display and doggedness shown during the quarter-final upheaval of Portugal which ultimately inscribed the African continent into the history books of the World Cup did due justice.

Morocco, on reaching the last four of the World Cup thus became the first African nation to reach the feat as well as the first ever Arabian nation to go as far as the semi finals. A remarkable defence line led by Romain Saiss conceded just once in the run up to that stage with that goal coming from Nayef Aguerd which means they didn’t concede to any opposition player during that gutsy run.

The tactical and technical astuteness displayed by the Atlas Lions leading up to their last four encounter against defending champions France should be engraved for coming generations to emulate. The coach with the help of his technical team was able to get the very best out of every single player who contested every duel like their lives depended on it. France against Morocco in the last four could be called (Battle of Brothers) with the supposed African side having fourteen players born outside of the African continent while their European counterparts had as much as thirteen players of African descent.

It was however the European representatives who prevailed over their African qualifiers with goals from Theo Hernandez which was the first conceded to an opposition player under Regragui and Randal Kolo Muani all but pulled the plug on the incredible run of the now historic team of gladiators. The memorable World Cup campaign would end against the same side it began with in Zlatko Dalic’s Croatian side but this time, understandably in defeat. The Moroccans bowed out of the tournament with their heads held high for an unbelievable and incredible tournament that’ll forever be remembered for what it was.

An African Team Or An European Breed?

The achievements of the Atlas Lions of Morocco at the just concluded Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup is well documented but could the glory be solely attributed to the African race or shared with the western world?

The historic Moroccan team could have participated as an African team but the country has always been one that associates more with the Arabian community and had even in the past sought European membership. 

History has it that the North African nation refused to sign a commitment to support the decolonization of fellow African countries South Africa, Angola and Mozambique in 1963. Morocco withdrew from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 and thus accepted to join the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as a member state. Their application to join the European Commission (EC) in 1987 was rejected as they were seen to be Africans by geographical placement. Morocco voted against South Africa in 2004 to allow Germany win the bid for the hosting rights of the 2006 World Cup and dedicated their victory over Portugal to the Arab world before coach Regragui corrected the notion from some of the players.

The country’s FA may have been pushing the agenda of investing in football pitches as the bedrock for their recent footballing success which cannot in all respects be disputed. The FRF have invested in the edification of playing surfaces across the nation while also investing in their youth setup which has actually placed the nation amongst one of the most developing footballing countries in the world. However, it has to be stated that 19 of the 37 playing and non playing contingent to Qatar were trained or born in the western world while 14 of the 26 players were born outside of Morocco.

Yassine Bounou and Achraf Hakimi were both nurtured in the city of Madrid with Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid respectively while substitute goalkeeper Munir Kajoui was born in Melilla and grew in the Almeria youth setup. Zakaria Aboukhlal, Hakim Ziyech, Sofyan Amrabat and Noussair Mazraoui were all born and formed in the Netherlands with exposure to the basics of the game from a very tender age.

Sofiane Boufal and captain Romain Saiss were both born and cultivated in France before opting to represent Morocco in their international careers. Amass Zaroury, Illias Chair, Selim Amallah and Bilal El Khannous were all born and raised in different academies in Belgium and it should also be noted that Walid Cheddira was born in Italy and formed in the Parma youth team.

Coach Walid Regragui was born in France where he also spent most of  his playing days before moving to Spain while assistant manager Gharib Amzine was born in France where he also spent all his playing days. Goalkeeper coach Omar Harrak was also born in Spain and has been coaching in Europe for twelve years. Moussa El Habchi who is the video analyst was born in Belgium where he worked with the national team and also teams like Anderlecht, Genk and also Ajax Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

READ ALSO: The Ballon d’Or: A Credible Recognition Of Excellence Or Evident Favouritism?

Technical director Chris Van Puyvelde is a Belgian and has previously worked with teams such as Olympiacos, Club Brugge and Gent as assistant manager while also at a point, held the technical roles in the Belgium and China national teams.

Who Takes The Glory?

Morocco’s exploits regardless of any western influence is solely and exclusively an achievement for Morocco and for Africa despite contrary claims from the European media. The continent is known to be a haven of pure footballing talents with below par developmental and continuous programmes which has deprived the second most populous continent in the world of its true value and placement. It should be recalled that despite the fact that no African team is yet to win the World Cup, several players of African descent have gone on to help their adopted nations to glory in the past. 

VIVA ATLAS LIONS

VIVA MOROCCO

VIVA AFRICA

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