Morocco fans celebrate after their country's win over Portugal at Souq Waqif in Doha. AFP
It is the sort of counter-intuition that Walid Regragui has already become famous for, and could yet make him a historic figure in football. While almost everyone has been asking the Moroccan manager what his plan for Kylian Mbappe is, the former defender’s main concern is another area of the pitch. Ahead of the World Cup semi-final against France, he has been working with Azzedine Ounahi on what is the most complicated role in the Morocco team, because the Angers midfielder constantly targets three different channels at once.
That is very hard to defend against, and represents one of their main attacking outlets. It also forms a defensive role in itself because it can sufficiently confuse opposition sides to disrupt their coherence. The idea is that Ounahi’s movement should give that French midfield behind Antoine Griezmann a lot to think about, all while Morocco’s own backline will be fully clear about their jobs. Regragui, to a certain degree, knows his defence takes care of itself.
This isn’t to say it’s all instinctive, or that there will be no idea for Mbappe. It’s quite the opposite. It’s that Regragui has this defensive shape so well drilled that the players now innately know when to move, what spaces to fill. They so quickly go from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-4-2 and even an 8-1-1. Sofyan Amrabat is meanwhile the marshal on the pitch, setting everything.
The crucial point with Morocco’s run is that this has now grown to something greater than just the technical or tactical. The defensive ability of the players is obviously adept, and the gameplan makes them better, but all of that has been infused by something intangible; something that amplifies into something that you probably only see in international tournaments and arguably only to this extreme at a World Cup. Centre-halves like Romain Saiss are distilling a nation’s emotion into every block, every header.
They’ve pushed themselves to the pain barrier, literally. That can be seen in how many core defensive players are injury doubts. It can be heard in stories like Amrabat taking painkillers. This has led to a virtuous cycle, that has taken Morocco to victory after victory. There’s first of all the feeling of it all. Every victory has fostered more confidence, which has only reinforced a greater conviction.
“We have tremendous energy and that is going to drive us,” Ragragui said. “When you have desire, commitment and the support of the crowd, you can win it.” That may still seem surreal, even at this stage, but there are then the facts. Morocco have only conceded once, and that was a Nayef Aguerd own goal. That is something else about their run that is historically sensational.
In the World Cup era since they introduced a last 16 stage, setting this common format in 1986, there has only been one semi-finalist who has conceded fewer goals. That was an Italy team playing at home in 1990, who let in nothing. There are then only four other sides who conceded just once in the same number of games.
Best defensive records of World Cup semi-finalists since 1986
• Italy 1990: 0
• Morocco 2022: 1
• Italy 2006: 1
• Portugal 2006: 1
• Germany 2002: 1
• France 1998: 1
• Germany 2010, Uruguay 2010: 2
• Spain 2010: 2
• France 2006, Korea 2002: 2
• Croatia 1998: 2
• Argentina 1990: 2
• France 1986: 2
That is esteemed company, and the knowledge of such feats only further fosters the feeling and the conviction. There’s then the accompaniment of tens of thousands of supporters, with so many flights chartered over the last few days, as well as the backing of the entire Arab world. It has similarly been an exhilarating insight into another football culture, so close but so constantly overshadowed by the western European club game. “Now the world starts to know what is a Moroccan fan,” Regragui said.
“He is a crazy guy, loves his country and his club. Wednesday you have more than 20,000 people minimum, he can come to support us and I am very happy because the World Cup can give a picture of fans of Morocco.” It all means that the team itself are in that propitiously rare atmosphere where an aura has grown around them.
It could be sensed in the last-16 elimination of Spain, and so visibly seen against Portugal. The wonder grows in the opposition over whether Morocco will ever concede; whether they can be breached. That is an immensely powerful thing. It brings even more out of players, pushes them even further. It could be seen in Korea 2002. Like that campaign, though, the wonder is how sustainable it actually is. Such emotional and physical investment can’t go on indefinitely. There is a limit.
The player doubts for France – Saiss, Aguerd, Amrabat and Noussair Mazraoui – are a sign of that. There is also the possibility that, once the aura evaporates, and the team do finally concede, it can all collapse. This is the particular danger of playing someone as good as Mbappe. He can do things others can’t, and that could mean Morocco abruptly stop doing what they have managed so well.
Even Mbappe, however, has to find a way through. “Everyone may think we are tired but you can’t be tired in a World Cup semi-final,” Regragui said. “We are very ambitious and hungry. We are determined to rewrite the history books.
"We want Africa to be on top of the world. I know we are not the favourites. You may say I am mad, crazy, but a bit of craziness is good. We still want to go further.” That aim is founded on some persuasive facts. It isn’t crazy. It’s a different thinking, that has defined Morocco’s World Cup campaign.
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