Remember Rocky Balboa, the small-time boxer played by Sylvester Stallone who got a shot at the heavyweight championship of the world?
That Rocky spirit is alive in Qatar these days as Moroccan coach Walid Regragui recently invoked the famed fictional hero. “When you watch Rocky Balboa, you want to support him and we are the Rocky of this World Cup.”
Regragui was speaking right after his team earned a historic victory over Portugal to become the first Arab and African country to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup. For a tournament that has been around for 92 years spanning 22 events and won by only eight countries, what Morocco have achieved is truly inspiring. A real-life Rocky.
As of writing, the semi-final between Morocco and defending champions France on Wednesday 14 December had not yet been played. But no matter what happens, nothing will ever be taken away from Morocco who have shocked the world. They have rewritten the world’s football order. They have entered the history books, written forever in indelible ink.
It is a huge, huge moment for Morocco, the African continent and the Arab world and, yes, why not the whole world? A dark horse, the underdog, the little guy with scant chance of winning comes out of nowhere to stun his opponent and all else who never expected this would or could ever happen.
Morocco went to Qatar with no particular fantasies in mind. Earlier this year, they had been defeated 2-1 by Egypt, a country that did not go to the World Cup, in the quarter-finals of the Africa Nations Cup.
More crucially, when the Moroccan Federation decided to sack their coach Vahid Halilhodžić in August following the country’s subpar performance in Africa, there were just over three months left before the World Cup. The Bosnian coach had guided the team through qualifying to Qatar 2022 but the search had to start for a new manager with the clock ticking.
Regragui had never coached Morocco or any other country. His biggest claim to fame was delivering the African Champions League title to domestic club Wydad this year after defeating Egypt’s Ahly in the final.
But Regragui got the nod and Morocco have never been the same since.
Morocco have for decades been a talented football team, starting with the 1970 World Cup in Mexico in which they narrowly lost 2-1 (they were ahead 1-0 at halftime) to what was at the time West Germany which had reached the final of the preceding showpiece.
Powered by players of renown, including Ezzaki Badou, Abdelmajid Dolmy, Aziz Bouderbala, Mohamed Timoumi, Mustapha Hadji, and Noureedine Naybet, they would go five more times to the World Cup, becoming the first Arab and African country to top their group, which included European heavyweights England, Poland and Portugal, in Mexico in 1986, before bowing out in the round of 16 to West Germany.
In between they won the 1976 Africa Cup Nations, surprisingly their only major continental prize.
So Regragui did not inherit a bunch of sloths. Morocco have bona fide stars in Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi, who play for the biggest European clubs Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain.
What Regragui did was assemble the most nationally diverse team at the World Cup, depending heavily on the diaspora, with 14 of the squad’s 26 players born in six countries, seamlessly integrating this group of stars and virtual unknowns from around the world into one cohesive unit.
With this team in Qatar, the Atlas Lions, as good as their players suggested, still unexpectedly topped Group F which included a 0-0 draw with 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia, beating world No 2 Belgium’s Golden Generation 2-0 and defeating Canada 2-1.
Then, in the knockout round of 16, awaiting was the bigger shock. Spain, the 2010 World Cup winners, passed and passed and passed, 1,041 in total, until they turned blue but could not get past that steely Moroccan defence.
Morocco couldn’t score against Spain either, so after regulation and extra time, it went to penalty kicks in which Spain unbelievably would not net a single goal. Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, or “Bono”, stopped penalty kicks from Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets, after Pablo Sarabia’s strike ricocheted off the post.
The stage was set for Hakimi who, as calm as it gets, scored with the Panenka — yes, a soft strike right down the middle of the goal, at a time like this — setting off wild celebrations in Education City Stadium.
Spain’s defeat was the stunner of the tournament. But wait, there was more to come. Morocco were not done yet.
Four days later, Morocco went one better — if that was possible — completing the Iberian double, beating Portugal 1-0 in the quarter-finals to reach the historic landmark: The first Arab and African nation to reach a World Cup semi-final.
Youssef En-Nesyri netted the only goal of the match just before half time with a spectacular header. The rest of the way Bono was in brilliant form, making superb saves from Joao Felix and was lucky enough to see Pepe head inches wide in stoppage time.
Barely noticed in the Moroccan elation and jubilation on the pitch of Al Thumama Stadium in front of 44,198 joyous fans following the historic victory, Cristiano Ronaldo left the scene of his probably last World Cup match in defeat and in tears. Morocco had shattered the dream of the Portuguese great who will most likely end his stupendous career by never winning the World Cup. For Portugal, though, that very same dream continues.
How did Morocco do it? Again, back to Regragui who introduced a defensive wall of green and red bodies. Morocco did not park the bus; that would be too naïve. What the players achieved successfully was jamming up the first 30 yards or so in front of their goal with as many players as was needed, which at times would amount to nine of them.
Then, when they got the ball, would come the fast break. Suddenly, En-Nesyri who seconds earlier was all alone up front, would find four, maybe five teammates alongside him.
Like in basketball, the fast break depends on sensing when the ball will come their way to begin the mad dash up the field. The approach requires supreme physical fitness, discipline and high levels of concentration.
But basketball does not have the offside rule, meaning the break in football, to have a happy ending, must be timed to perfection.
The statistics bear out Morocco’s execution. After five games, the team had only conceded one goal — an own goal at that, against Canada — meaning Croatia, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal failed to break down Morocco.
In that stretch, they allowed just 10 shots on target. Morocco themselves scored just five times. A goal a game normally doesn’t get a team far but it has now.
Affectionately nicknamed Rass l’Avocat (avocado head) because of his bald plate, Regragui also broke with norms by allowing the players’ families to stay with the team in Qatar. Regragui embracing his mother and Hakimi kissing his mom after Morocco’s victory against Spain were some of the most uplifting photos of the World Cup.
Morocco were also backed by arguably the loudest, most passionate fans in the tournament, the decibels intensifying every time the team had the ball and every time it didn’t. Every match has felt like home field advantage for Morocco.
As expected, congratulations poured in from across the world. As a sample, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry tweeted: “Sincere heartfelt congratulations to the brotherly kingdom of Morocco.”
“I congratulate the Atlas Lions on their win today and becoming the first African and Arab team to ever reach the semi-finals of the World Cup,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also tweeted.
Morocco’s run in Qatar has been extraordinary. As the first African and first Arab country to reach the World Cup semi-finals, Morocco’s football team now represents so much more than its own nation. It has united a region and continent in celebration.
As we write, Morocco were two wins away from becoming the most unlikely and improbable World Cup champions. Just like Rocky Balboa, punching way above his weight.
In the original film, Rocky just missed capturing the crown. In the second, he became the champion of the world.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly