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Morocco are one step from a sensational place in the World Cup final, with boss Walid Regragui embracing the “craziness” ahead of their semi-final meeting with defending champions France.
Their achievements in Qatar, becoming the first African team to reach this stage, have come as a surprise to many, especially after the coach who led the Atlas Lions to the tournament was sacked in August.
Arguably one of the biggest underachievers of North African football, with their sole continental title coming in 1976, Morocco’s 2-0 win over Belgium in their second game in Group F was their first victory at the World Cup since 1998 – having failed to qualify for four straight tournaments immediately afterwards.
Fourteen of Morocco’s 26-man squad were born outside the country – more than any other team at the tournament – with an eclectic mix of players from growing migrant communities across Europe helping them break new ground.
A crucial turning point for the team came just three months before the finals when Vahid Halilhodzic was sacked as coach and replaced by Regragui, who won the domestic league and African Champions League titles with Wydad Casablanca last season.
That change has helped soothe tensions in the squad, with Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech coming out of international retirement, while the improvement on the pitch has also been remarkable.
Morocco have been vociferously backed at the first World Cup held in the Arab world and their legions of supporters will be joined by thousands more as state carrier Royal Air Maroc operates seven special flights from Casablanca to Doha on Tuesday.
Estimates of the fluctuating numbers of Moroccan supporters in Qatar vary from 20,000 to as many as 40,000.
The players have become heroes amid joyous victory celebrations across North Africa, and by the diaspora in Europe, but have remained grounded – exemplified by Achraf Hakimi kissing his mother after victories and winger Sofiane Boufal dancing with his on the pitch after beating Portugal in the quarter-finals.
The team have also displayed their Islamic beliefs, bowing down for sujud (prostration) in front of their fans after their progress through the knock-out rounds.
But who makes up the side which is aiming to upset France – former colonial masters from whom Morocco gained independence in 1956 – at the Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday (19:00 GMT)?
Bono and the Moroccan Maldini – The case for the defence
Defensive solidity has been a key factor, with just one goal conceded in eight matches under Regragui – with even that being an own goal in the win over Canada.
Right-back Hakimi is undoubtedly the squad’s poster-boy and is no stranger to Europe’s top clubs, with spells at Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan already behind him at the age of 24.
He has had to temper his attacking instincts somewhat, but the Paris St-Germain star showed a flash of his temperament and talent with his Panenka penalty to wrap up the last-16 shoot-out win against Spain.
Captain Romain Saiss, called ‘the Moroccan Maldini’ by former Wolves coach Bruno Lage, and West Ham’s Nayef Aguerd have been rock solid at centre-back, but with both being injury doubts for the game against France, Jawad El Yamiq and Badr Benoun could be called upon to start.
Now playing in Spain for Real Valladolid after a stint in Italy, 30-year-old El Yamiq was part of the Morocco squad which won the African Nations Championship, a competition for domestic-based players, in 2018 while Benoun stands at 6’3″ tall and was nicknamed ‘Sultan’ by his Al Ahly team-mates before moving from the Egyptian giants to a Qatari club this year.
With Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui ruled out of the quarter-final through injury, Yahya Attith-Allah – one of three players in the squad from Regragui’s old club Wydad – has stepped in and looked composed despite making his international debut in March.
Get the better of a mean defence and then you have to find a way past Yassine Bounou, born in Canada and known as Bono.
Back-up in Russia four years ago, the 31-year-old was a Europa League winner with Sevilla in 2020 and won the Zamora Trophy last season for being the top goalkeeper in Spain’s La Liga.
“When you have one of the best goalkeepers in the world, it gives you confidence, and Yassine gives us that,” said Regragui after his side knocked out Portugal.
“He helped us a lot and when he gets into the game, we’re virtually unstoppable.”
‘Where does that boy come from?’- Hard-working midfield
Sofyan Amrabat has been one of the stand-out players in the run to the last four, with his relentless pressing and tough-tackling providing a solid screen to the Morocco defence.
The younger brother of former Watford winger Nordin, whom he replaced in one game at the 2018 finals, Dutch-born Sofyan represented the Netherlands at Under-15 level and has returned to form for Fiorentina this season.
Alongside him in centre midfield is Azzedine Ounahi -one of four players in the squad who are products of the Mohammed VI Academy in Sale – whose strong box-to-box-displays mean he is garnering interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
“My goodness, where does that boy come from?” asked Spain boss Luis Enrique after their last 16 exit on penalties.
“He plays like the Spanish players. He hasn’t stopped running, he must be exhausted.”
Playing for lowly Angers in France, the technical but rangy 22-year-old made his international debut in January and scored twice in the World Cup play-off win over DR Congo two months later to help Morocco qualify.
“Is the phone ringing? It’s ringing quite a lot,” Angers chairman Said Chabane told France’s RMC of the interest in Ounahi and countryman Boufal, who has also started every game in Qatar.
Meanwhile, playmaker Selim Amallah, once coveted by former Belgium manager Roberto Martinez, has also impressed even though he has not played a club game since September because of a contract stand-off with Standard Liege.
Like Giroud for France – Energy in attack
Youssef En-Nesyri leads the line and, despite being without a league goal for Sevilla this season, the 25-year-old has his own place in Morocco’s World Cup history books.
His winners against Canada and Portugal have made him his country’s all-time leading scorer at the finals with three goals, having also netted in the group-stage draw with Spain in 2018.
“I have always believed in Youssef because he gives great energy,” Regragui said.
“Any coach would love him to be in their team because he works so hard for the team, like (Olivier) Giroud for France.”
Ziyech is well-known talent from his time with Ajax and Chelsea, but Regragui has got the best from a player whose club form can be inconsistent.
The 29-year-old was in the international wilderness between June 2021 and September this year after a public falling-out with Halilhodzic, but now his eight appearances at the World Cup finals is a joint national record alongside Hakimi.
Boufal, one of two Morocco players born in France (Saiss the other), is back to his best international form while at Angers, after just three goals in 70 Premier League appearances during a four-year spell at Southampton which ended in 2020.
He is among five members of the squad who ply their trade in Ligue 1, alongside Zakaria Aboukhlal (Toulouse), Achraf Dari (Brest), Hakimki and Ounahi.
Hakimi’s insider knowledge of France star Kylian Mbappe, a team-mate in Paris, will be a factor if Morocco can pull off what would be arguably the World Cup’s greatest upset in its history.
“We aren’t satisfied with the semi-final and being the first African team to do that. We want to go further,” Regragui said.
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