Morocco’s inspirational World Cup run succeeded in putting traditional powers on notice

5:33 PM ET

AL KHOR, Qatar — At the final whistle, Morocco coach Walid Regragui embraced his opposite number, France boss Didier Deschamps, who had just guided Les Bleus to a second consecutive World Cup final. Regragui gathered his group of bruised and spent players after Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat into a huddle in the middle of the pitch and, after a brief speech, guided them towards the stand behind one of the goals, turned blood-red by the jerseys and flags of the overwhelmingly Morocco-supporting — but not necessarily Moroccan — crowd.

Almost as one, they bowed to their supporters. Not like concert pianists after a performance, but on all fours, heads down, appearing to kiss the ground of Al Bayt Stadium. It felt solemn. It felt genuine. And the crowd roared mightily in approval. Not even the stadium DJ’s ill-advised choice of blasting Gala’s “Freed from Desire” and segueing into an awful version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” could spoil the moment.

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You may think their run at the World Cup had ended. Technically, you’d be right — although they play the third-place consolation match against Croatia on Saturday. Emotionally, you’d be wrong. Because the feeling doesn’t end here. It felt more like a beginning. And it’s not just about Morocco, it’s about the beginnings of a world order being upended. Or maybe just the hope, the vibe, that the perennial blue bloods who have hegemonized the sport for nearly a century may leave room for somebody else.

This was more than an underdog story, more than just neutrals rooting against the favorites, be they France, Portugal or Spain. This was the rest of the world uniting behind them. Morocco became the first African team, the first Arab team and the second team from a predominantly Muslim nation (after Turkey in 2002) to reach the semifinal of a World Cup.

The sport invented in Britain some 160 years ago and exported to every corner of the world since has been dominated, at least on the biggest stage of all, by a handful of nations. Only eight countries, from two continents, have won the World Cup and that won’t change this time around, with France and Argentina in Sunday’s final. But that hegemony is being chipped away.

In all, of the 88 squads that have reached the semifinals in the 22 editions of the World Cup that have been held, just three of them were from outside of Europe or South America. One was the United States (yes, really), way back in 1930 at the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay. Another was South Korea in 2002, where they served as co-hosts with Japan.

And now there’s Morocco. Over the course of the tournament they ignited the passion of a region — multiple regions, in fact, a function of their Arab-African-Muslim identity — and they did it in the most straightforward and honest way possible: by playing good football, often in overmatched conditions, often burdened by injuries, always with passion.

Regragui knew what buttons to push. He named center-back Nayef Aguerd in the starting lineup submitted to FIFA, knowing there was no way he could take the pitch, only to change him just before kickoff. Aguerd, Morocco’s outstanding defender in the group stage, had come off injured in the victory over Spain, but it felt like a symbolic gesture. Aguerd’s defensive partner, Romain Saiss, was also injured but he gritted his teeth, started and played for twenty minutes in what felt like football’s answer to Willis Reed’s legendary appearance for the New York Knicks in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.

Regragui’s mastery at squeezing the most out of his group of players was key to the run. He did it with symbols (as mentioned above), psychology (inviting not just the players’ wives and girlfriends, but their mothers and fathers as well into the camp) and a heck of a lot of tactical nous.

Morocco’s medium-block defensive intensity and counterattacking prowess — breaking not just with raw speed, but with passing and precision — allowed them to compete with more talented sides. Their defensive fortitude and some phenomenal individual performances — goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, Saiss, fullback Achraf Hakimi and midfield duo Sofyan Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi are all team-of-the-tournament contenders — pushed them over the line.

Much has been made of the Moroccan diaspora and how fourteen of Regragui’s 26-man squad were born outside the country and received their footballing education abroad: four each in Belgium and the Netherlands, two each in Spain and France, one in Canada and one in Italy. That’s part of the story and part of the reality of football and modern-day patterns of migration. But it’s not as if Morocco simply cherry-picked a bunch of dual nationality players. The bond with their ancestry and culture is strong. And their ascent to the national side was not an accident.

In 2009, the Moroccan FA opened the Mohammed VI Football Academy, their own version of Clairefontaine in France or St George’s Park in England, i.e., a state-of-the-art national training center to develop the next generation of footballers domestically and, also, a way of showcasing facilities which were in no way inferior to those in wealthier footballing nations. The effect was twofold. It enticed gifted players of Moroccan descent to choose the country of their parents and grandparents. And it spurred further investment into the game domestically.

Morocco won the most recent African Nations Championship — a continental competition reserved for footballers playing in Africa, differing from the more prominent Africa Cup of Nations tournament in which the majority of the players ply their trade abroad. In addition, Moroccan clubs are the reigning champions in Africa’s CAF Champions League (Al Wydad) and the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup (RS Berkane). In other words, this success is not built on sand. Seeds have been planted. Pathways have been drawn. Europe and South America may have the historical legacy and the know-how, but the gap is narrowing.

“You can’t win a World Cup with miracles,” Regragui said after Wednesday’s match. “You need to do it through hard work and that’s what we are going to do. We are going to keep working.”

Maybe it’s still a chasm. Maybe the World Cup will remain a winners’ circle of just eight members for the next few decades. Maybe, like Pele’s oft-mocked prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000, it’s just wishful thinking, somewhere between a fantasy and a flight of folly.

But that dream became reality for the past few weeks. The very idea of possibility became tangible. And that suggests that the wheels are in motion. They are building it. And it will come.

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