Morocco’s biggest test awaits as they take on France in semi-finals.
The good thing about exceeding expectations is everyone starts taking you seriously. The bad thing is, well, they start taking you seriously, and you see the sense of freedom evaporating into the burden of myriads of expectations. Morocco, by all accounts, has already exceeded expectations, but they might not be done just yet. They are no longer just another football team, but a hope, a symbol, an embodiment of the vagaries of ideologies. They are now a hope of the African world, a symbol of anti-colonial resistance — thanks to their triumph over Spain and Portugal, two countries that ruled over them — and an embodiment of the global south solidarity.
It might be a bit simplistic but there’s nothing sinister about using international sports as a metaphor for the wider territorial conflicts. The very nature of the game, the explicit difference between winner and loser, makes it prone to such appropriations. But there’s also a fear that the extra burden of a conflicted history thrust upon them might start weighing a bit heavier. For all the fetishization of underdogs, there’s a mutual understanding that these teams are running on borrowed time, and the flicker of light might extinguish any time.
Morocco are now two steps away from doing the unthinkable, but those two steps will be more daunting than the miles they have sprinted through so far. Do they have two more left in them? Beating France looks like an improbable task, but their entire campaign is built on achieving the impossible. They haven’t scraped through to the semi-finals, and neither are they purely thriving on luck and skill. They have been the epitome of control and calm, two traits that win you a trophy.
Some may object to the usage of control to describe this outfit (Hey, Rodri!). After Spain succumbed to Morocco, Rodri was quick to dismiss them as a nothing team who did nothing other than just wait for the counters. “Morocco offered absolutely nothing, without disrespecting them,” the 26-year-old said. It’s okay, we shouldn’t really expect athletes to drop profound quotes, minutes after losing an important game.
But still, it takes a great leap of faith to say that a team “did nothing,” when the same team has played 450 minutes of the game without conceding even a single goal from the opponents. Controlling the game has various interpretations in football, and there’s no correct way. If Spain played in a way that maximized their chance of progressing, Morocco also did the same, They soaked up the pressure without much turbulence, and hardly looked perturbed by gazillions of Spanish insipid passes. It’s their way of controlling the game, and it has been highly effective so far. They are the only team in the tournament with over 100 tackles made against opponents, out of which 63 resulted in regain of possession. They also make more blocks and interceptions than anyone else, and are pretty quick in clearances. Five matches in, they have committed only one error that led to an opponent’s shot. Irrespective of how things pan out for them in the semi-finals, Morocco has already shown that they too can create beauty, in their own beautiful way.
While Morocco’s success is a result of its collective willpower and cohesion between different parts of its machinery, there hasn’t been any dearth of sheer individual brilliance. They wait and wait and wait but when the situation demands something
extraordinary, they have been able to conjure it.
This is best personified by Achraf Hakimi, when he produced a moment of sublime genius and celebrated by waddling on his feet like a penguin, in what was the decisive penalty kick against Spain. He is not the first player to do that, for any regular fan must have seen a dozen of panenka kicks live, but yet it felt different when Hakimi did that. In the same game, Sofyan Boufal received the ball and found himself one-on-one against the improvised full-back Marcos Llorente. Boufal waited, jumped to his left, then to his right, and gilded with the ball while Llorente lay there in the supine state, or as they say, Boufal sent Llorente for a hot dog. In the quarter-final against Portugal, Youssef En-Nesyri’s decisive goal was a result of a historic 2.78m leap. At the height of this jump, En-Neysri’s waist graced Ruben Dias’ face, while the goalkeeper’s raised hand was a good few inches short to deflect it from En-Neysri’s path.
Amrabat has been the rock in the Moroccan midfield, the one-man army doing everything from winning back possession to shielding the ball in tight spaces to gliding through the midfield with impeccable ease. He wasn’t sure about starting the game against Spain because of illness. Not only did he eventually start, albeit not without taking an injection before the game, but also played the game of his life, a performance that will surely echo in some chambers of YouTube highlights for years to come. On Thursday, he will be facing the sternest test of his career against the dynamic French attackers, who surely know different ways to kill. And there’s no reason why he couldn’t come out triumphant.
Heading into the tournament, the biggest stars of this team were their two wingbacks: Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui. Doubts and uncertainties lingered over Hakim Ziyech, whose tenure at Chelsea has been anything but seamless. But Ziyech seems to be enjoying the newfound freedom at this World Cup, and he looks much more eager to get into the action, dribble pass or cut inside, and link up with his teammates.The world now knows the likes of Amrabat, Boufal, Roman Saiss, Ounahi, and Yassine Bounoui. Some of these players, you’ll see, bagging lucrative contracts with elite European clubs. There were concerns over the depth of their squad, and it was worsened by the injuries of Saiss and Mazraoui, but their replacements have not only stepped up to fill the void, but also showed that they
are as good as anyone.