Morocco’s players stood at attention ahead of Tuesday’s World Cup knockout game against Spain for the country’s national anthem, although quite a few seemed to struggle with the lyrics.
It wasn’t an act of protest, it was just that the anthem wasn’t theirs as eight of the eleven Moroccan starters were born somewhere other than Morocco. But they still have four days to learn the song after upsetting Spain with penalties after 120 goalless minutes and becoming the first African side to reach the quarter-finals of a World Cup since 2010.
“When you’re in the thick of it, you don’t even realize what you’ve just achieved,” said goalkeeper Yassine Bounou. “We have to stay focused. Perhaps in time we will see what we have achieved.”
Here’s a little bit of what Morocco, the surprise team of this World Cup, has achieved: It eliminated Belgium and Croatia – both top-three finishers at the last World Cup – in the first round to become the first African team to do so this century win his group. They have gone 390 minutes without their opponents scoring a goal, with the only goal conceded being an own goal.
And it capped that on Tuesday by withstanding a relentless attack from a Spanish side that had possession for almost 80% of the game, fired more than twice as often and completed more than four times as many passes. But the ball never went into the net, not even in a penalty shoot-out, making Morocco the first African nation to advance on penalties at a World Cup.
“You know, when you have a goalkeeper like ours, you have a chance to go through,” said Walid Regragui, Morocco’s French-born coach.
Everyone in the Moroccan team comes from different places, which is part of their strength. In a truly global World Cup – at least 136 players, nearly one in five, representing countries they weren’t born in – Morocco is the ultimate united nation, with 14 of the 26 players in their squad born elsewhere.
Regragui, who took over the side after Vahid Halilhodzic was sacked in August, urged the Moroccan FA to open the national team to anyone who qualified. The team has not lost a game since then.
“For myself, I often fight for it with my country,” he said. “Before this World Cup, we had a lot of problems with the European-born boys and the Moroccan-born boys.”
On Tuesday he beat Spain with a Canadian-born goalkeeper and successful penalty kicks from players born in the Netherlands and Spain.
“Today I think it showed the world that every Moroccan with his passport is Moroccan,” said Regragui, who was born in Paris to Moroccan parents. “If he gets into the national team you want to die, you want to fight. And I want to show that. And now we have an example.
“You have a different football. They have some players who were born in Italy, some players from Spain, players from France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Every country has a football culture and you make a milkshake out of that.”
Morocco is hardly an outlier. More than a third of the Tunisian World Cup squad was French-born, and five other World Cup teams had rosters that were at least a quarter foreign-born. But Morocco are the only ones left and they reached the quarter-finals with a performance that was more guts than cunning, more tenacity than technique.
“We knew we wouldn’t have much possession,” said Regragui. “We were humble enough to say that we are not France, Belgium or Germany.”
So Morocco remained patient and waited for opportunities that rarely presented themselves. As a result, Morocco managed just two shots on goal in 120 minutes – but more importantly, they gave up just one to Spain.
“Of course we want to go down in the history books. We’re trying to get some momentum here in Africa. Many African teams are making great strides.”
— Walid Regragui, Morocco’s French-born coach
“We didn’t want to play on penalties,” said Regragui. “But we knew we had one of the best goalkeepers in the world.”
And Bounou, who plays soccer for Sevilla, didn’t disappoint, saving two penalties and watching another ricochet off the right post.
“There’s a bit of feeling, a bit of luck,” said Bounou. “You know what punishments are like.”
That left Paris Saint-Germain defender Achraf Hakimi, who was born in Spain and raised in Real Madrid’s academy, to deliver the dagger with a panenka that ended the World Cup for the 2010 champions.
After that, Morocco’s jubilant players threw Bounou in the air, then chased Regragui and did the same to him. In the dressing room, the coach took a call from Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. who congratulated the team on becoming the first Moroccan to advance to the round of 16 and the first to win more than one match at a World Cup.
But Regragui made it clear that his team’s mission is not over yet. No African team has won a World Cup quarter-final; a win over Portugal on Saturday would make Morocco first.
“Of course we want to go down in the history books,” he said. “We’re trying to get some momentum here in Africa. Many African teams are making great strides.”
Even those who are not completely African.
“I’m international. I grew up in France. And I studied in France to become a coach,” said Regragui, who played 45 games as a defender for Morocco. “But I was fortunate to have the support of my country.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/soccer/story/2022-12-06/morocco-vs-spain World Cup: Diverse Morocco makes history by stunning Spain