Morocco World Cup Profile | Are Walid Regragui’s side Africa’s best Qatar hope?

The Plan | After failing to qualify for the last four World Cups, the Atlas Lions have gained some consistency and, four years after Russia, they’re back for the second time in a row. Their best performance goes back to 1986, when they amazed everybody by getting past the first round, in a tough group featuring England, Poland and Portugal. Despite losing four or five main players that participated in the 2018 campaign, such as Mehdi Benatia, Karim El Ahmadi, Mbarek Boussoufa or Nordin Amrabat, the Moroccan national team succeeded in securing a spot in consecutive World Cups, which hasn’t happened since the 1994 and 1998 campaigns.

With the likes of Romain Saïss, Achraf Hakimi and Yassine Bounou, the experience and the lessons of the 2018 campaign are present in everyone’s minds. “When you’re in the World Cup, it means you earned it. We’re going to Qatar with no pressure. Our goal is clear : qualify for the second round”. Strong words from Romain Saïss, one of the few Moroccans to play in two consecutive World Cups. In August 2019, with the departure of coach Hervé Renard, the team started a long process to rejuvenate itself and this task went to one of the most charismatic yet unlucky coaches around: Vahid Halilhodzic. He succeeded in mixing up younger players with those that have been there for a while. But his feud with Hakim Ziyech cost him a lot in the eyes of some supporters, including the head of the FA. In August 2022, Coach Vahid was sacked and Walid Regragui, winner of the African Champions League with local powerhouse Wydad AC, replaced him with very little time to prepare for the tournament.

The Coach | An international from 2001 to 2009, Walid Regragui is Morocco’s first Moroccan manager since Badou Ezaki (2014-2016). Born to Moroccan parents in the Paris banlieue, Walid started his coaching career as an assistant to national team coach Rachid Taoussi (2012-2013). He was first noticed by the general public when he helped FUS Rabat to their first-ever championship title in 2016. In 2020, Walid joined Al-Duhail SC in Qatar and won the championship too. But the very best performance of Regragui’s career came in May 2022, when he won the African Champions League after Wydad AC beat Al Ahly in Casablanca. “Performance, performance… There is your performance” shouted the coach in the presser following the historical win, in his answer to critics who thought Wydad was playing too much defensive football.

Star Player | Achraf Hakimi is Morocco’s wonder boy. “Hakimi is a phenomenon. I’ve never seen anybody like him and I’m almost 70. He’s playing excellent football – I’m not sure his teammates are playing the same sport”. Those strong words from Halilhodzic sparked controversy, but Hakimi has consolidated himself as one of the very few world-class Moroccan players. Developed in Madrid, Achraf has been successful in Spain, Germany and Italy and is now a key player at PSG. But beyond his club performances, Hakimi has never thought twice about honouring his national duty. Hopes of seeing him perform well in Qatar are very high.

Unsung Hero | Just like his older brother, Sofyan Amrabat is a raging bull on the pitch. But, unlike Nordin, the former Club Bruges midfielder is more low-key. “It’s nice to share the national team adventure with my brother. When we played in the 2018 World Cup, he told me “We’ll face everybody head-on”. Since that moment, it became my motto”. With the delicate mission of a defensive midfielder, Sofyan is one the most important pieces in the Moroccan puzzles, but is often forgotten about by the public.

Probable Line-up | 4-2-3-1 : Bounou, Hakimi, Saïss, Aguerd, Mazraoui, Amrabat, Ounahi, Harit, Boufal, Ziyech, En-Nesyri

Qatar Stance | “Qatar is gathering unique and unprecedented organizing conditions compared to precedent world cups. Without any doubt, Qatar is honouring the whole Arab world”, said Fouzi Lekjaâ, president of Moroccan FA (FRMF). Many Moroccans share this view, as Qatar and Morocco are friendly countries. In 2017, when many countries in the Gulf region imposed a blockade on Qatar, Morocco sent essential supplies. Qatar is also home to many Moroccan workers and, apart from notorious ex-international player Abdeslam Ouaddou, who won a case against a Qatari club, very few people have had complaints about their working conditions in the country.

National Anthem | The music has been composed in the early 20th Century as a salute to the Sultan Moulay Youssef, under the French protectorate. But the lyrics are the most interesting part, as they were composed because of the World Cup. In 1969, the late King Hassan II wanted to write lyrics for the national anthem and a poet name Ali Skalli Lahssaini came up with them. Legend says that the first time that Moroccans heard the chant in its present version was through the live broadcasting of the first Morocco game in Mexico in 1970. The most memorable verse is the last one “Bi Shi-ar Allah, Al-Watan, Al-Malik (With the motto : God, Homeland, King)”.

Cult Hero | Badou Ezaki was the captain of the Atlas Lions that made history by becoming the first African team to qualify for the second round of a World Cup. He won African player of the year in the following months. In Mexico 1986, he played the biggest role in the qualification by stopping the likes of Zbigniew Boniek and Gary Lineker. Salaheddine Bassir scored two goals against Scotland during the group stage in 1998. Little did he and his teammates know that a 3-0 win against the Scots wasn’t enough. Brazil beat Norway at the same time, crushing millions of Moroccan hopes. Noureddine Naybet is considered by many as the best player in terms of longevity and quality, having played at the top level in Europe. Along with Bassir, Naybet was Spanish champion with Deportivo La Coruña and played in the Champions League regularly, scoring his club’s first-ever goal in the competition, despite being a central defender.

By Mohamed Amine Elamri of Le Matin via Get Football’s partnership with the Guardian

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