Morocco’s World Cup odyssey changed what it meant to be the underdog

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“Dreaming is free but doing it is different.” Romain Saïss could not have expressed it better. Morocco has written itself, a continent and a region in football folklore and the impact could be priceless. Every underdog, which also basically means every African country, comes to a World Cup with high hopes and the occasional bold proclamation, but the Atlas Lions have delivered in a way none of them have been able to match.

Before the tournament, Walid Regragui, their manager, had warned: “You shouldn’t have too many expectations on this team.” Saïss, the captain and former Wolves defender, had suggested to himself that a last 16 should be their aim. Morocco was a discreet participant in Qatar 2022 and never got carried away. The dream increased in scope with each obstacle jumped; his rewards are already priceless.

“We want to continue making history,” said Saïss. It will apparently be a tall order against France, especially given the extent of Morocco’s foot casualties. Three of the rears that finished against Portugal were MPs; a second-half injury to Saïss, who was carried off on a stretcher and looked distraught at the time, was one reason. “I hope it goes well but, if I find it too difficult, I won’t take any chances and put my team in trouble just to play in the semi-final,” he said, cutting a much more optimistic figure in the hours after full-time.

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Such altruism has helped bring Morocco this far. Regragui worked a small miracle by getting Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal, neither of whom were famous for such diligence, to make painstaking defensive contributions. One advantage of calling for contributions deep into defensive territory is that both are confident enough to execute some of the stunning flicks, passes and turns that shape offense from defense in dizzying moments and are an alluring hallmark of this team. No team in this tournament broke their opponents’ presses so creatively.

Sofiane Amrabat, the outstanding midfielder, explained how Morocco is reaching for hidden reserves. “We are very tired but there is no choice,” he said. “I wasn’t fresh but this is the World Championship and you have to give everything you have: run like crazy until the end”.

He did exactly that. A slalom out of trouble and through Portugal’s midfield in added time made a mockery of tips spent on Morocco and it’s hard to imagine the degree of willpower, coupled with the ability to stay so clear-headed, that was required to make it through that phase . “I’ve already played almost 30 games this season in three or four months,” said Amrabat. “It is very difficult but you have no choice. Everyone must go all the way and ask the maximum of themselves, of their bodies”.

Morocco has rewritten the rules of possibility. The thought that a left-back from Casablanca club Wydad AC could start a World Cup semi-final would never seem credible, but Yahia Attiyat Allah showed on Saturday that he will be more than capable of competing if Noussair Mazraoui does not recover from illness and injury. Achraf Dari, who came on for Saïss and showed no fear of putting his head where it might hurt the most, had been his club-mate until Brest in July.

These things matter: they change everything, opening up the possibility that a headlong rush to Europe is not the only path to fulfillment. During the group stage it was common to attend press conferences from African teams and hear, particularly from Ghana’s eloquent coach Otto Addo, why the continent’s attempts to break new ground are hampered by poor representation at the World Cup. Little margin for error is possible with five slots. “If they had 10 African teams, maybe five would make it to the quarter-finals,” Regragui said after Morocco’s draw with Croatia, which raised few eyebrows at the time. “African teams must be aware that we are elite teams.”

Related: Player mums take center stage as Morocco make history at the World Cup

Another of Regragui’s observations at the time was that African sides “often end up losing in the end”. Not anymore. That specter was completely dismissed in the closing stages, wiped out after Yassine Bounou denied Cristiano Ronaldo the kind of final he took for granted. When Morocco’s substitute Zakaria Aboukhlal departed only to miss the most tempting opportunity to make things right, the ghosts of Ghana in 2010 and, perhaps less painfully, the fine Senegal and Cameroon teams that preceded them loomed . But this time there wasn’t a cruel twist: just pure competence. Removing that mental barrier shifts the entire conversation for Africa and, quite plausibly, mainstream outsiders in general.

“The 22 players, how we defend, our fighting spirit,” Amrabat said when asked about Morocco’s secret. They have more strings to their bow than that, but so far it has more than paid off to be self-effacing. Then came the bigger question: Could they dare to think they were going to win the whole thing?

“Yes why not?” she replied in a millisecond. Morocco has earned the right to reach for the stars.

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