By Bill Chappell, NPR, 13 December 2022
DOHA - Elite World Cup teams often speak of dancing — finding their rhythm and joy in a crucible of pressure. But Morocco's players say they're living a dream — and their run in Qatar has surpassed the dreams of any other African or Arab nation.
"We can dream, why shouldn't we dream about winning the World Cup?" Morocco coach Walid Regragui said after his team dispatched Portugal.
"We had a dream, of course," team captain Romain Saiss said. "Dreaming is free. So we can dream. But, after, to do it is different. We put a lot of energy in each game — physically and mentally it's hard, but at the end it's so good."
Despite being ranked the world's No. 22 squad, Morocco has gone undefeated so far in Qatar, knocking out European heavyweights to set up Wednesday's semifinal against defending champion France.
Fans are ecstatic over Morocco's historic run
The 1-0 win over Portugal "is a story from the stories I heard about the nights of the One Thousand and One Nights," one jubilant fan said in a TV interview. "Today I lived the dream," he added. "Thank you, Qatar, thank you, thank you."
Morocco's fans have been among the loudest in Qatar, willing their team to withstand onslaughts from some of the game's best players, from Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne and Croatia's Luka Modrić to Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo.
The victory also set off massive celebrations in Morocco, as people thronged city streets to cheer the national team.
Morocco's defense has been lights out
The Moroccan defense hasn't allowed any of its opponents to score in Qatar — the sole goal it conceded came on an odd own-goal, against Canada. It hasn't lost a match at the World Cup, setting the tone early after starting play with a nervy 0-0 draw with 2018 runner-up Croatia.
Morocco's back line is anchored by Achraf Hakimi, a versatile defender who was born in Spain and plays professionally for the famed French club Paris Saint-Germain. His friends and admirers include French superstar Kylian Mbappé, Hakimi's PSG teammate, who said earlier this year that Hakimi is the best right-back on the planet.
And goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, a.k.a. Bono, has been clutch, making 39 saves so far, according to FIFA. Crucially, he saved two of the three penalty shots taken by Spain, after the two sides finished play 0-0.
The team has shown it can win in a variety of ways, from defensive slugfests to creating opportunities through open play and winning a penalty shootout.
Morocco is the "Rocky" of the World Cup, coach says
Regragui said his side is "the Rocky Balboa of this World Cup" after the Atlas Lions became the first African team ever to reach the semifinals with a stunning victory over Portugal on Saturday.
"When you watch Rocky, you want to support Rocky Balboa because of his hard work and commitment and I think we're the Rocky Balboa of this World Cup," Regragui said, according to Agence France-Presse.
Like the iconic boxer portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, Morocco has absorbed punishment from world-beater athletes, all while refusing to lose. Also like Rocky, the team is showing the toll that effort requires.
Several key players have suffered injuries in Qatar, including the captain Saiss, 32, who left the match with Portugal on a stretcher, with an apparent hamstring problem. Others hurt include center back Nayef Aguerd, 26, whose injury has been reported as being to his thigh or his knee, and Noussair Mazraoui.
Morocco's performance has stunned the soccer world, particularly after the national team lost Amine Harit, a talented attacking midfielder. Harit was felled by a serious knee injury just before the World Cup began, while playing for his pro team, Olympique Marseille.
In Harit's absence, others are carrying the load, from steadfast midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, 26, to Youssef En-Nesyri, 25, the striker who soared through the Qatari sky to head in the winner against Portugal.
And attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech, 29, has been all over the place, stepping up on defense and disrupting opponents while also serving up 20 crosses and putting eight shots on goal, according to FIFA's stats.
Morocco has done (some of) this before
This isn't the first time Morocco has won its group and defeated Portugal. The team accomplished a historic breakthrough in 1986 — a World Cup at which it found itself in the unenviable grouping of England, Poland and Portugal.
But none of the European teams could find a way to defeat Morocco, and it won the group to advance to the round of 16 — becoming the first African team to do so.
Coached by Brazilian Jose Faria, that 1986 Morocco team went through intensive training to ensure they were a cohesive unit, and one that was primed to play in the heat of host Mexico: They trained in Monterrey for 40 days. But the squad finally exited when West Germany was able to eke out a 1-0 win.
Morocco's success at the World Cup in Qatar is being touted in the North African country and far beyond. After the Atlas Lions beat Portugal, the leaders of Niger, Chad, Djibouti, Turkey and other nations extended their congratulations, according to Morocco's government.
Morocco has brought dual-national players home
At this year's World Cup, Morocco "is the only team in the tournament with more than half of its 26 players born in other countries," as Quartz has reported.
It's not unusual for a player to represent a country in which they weren't born. In 1938, at the third installment of the World Cup, more than 12% of the athletes wore national colors that were different from their birth country, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
In the last World Cup, 17 of Morocco's 23 players were born abroad, mostly in Europe, the MPI noted. Sixteen of 23 athletes on Algeria's 2014 World Cup team were born in France, according to the Sport and Nation research project at Erasmus University Rotterdam.
The numbers reflect a stark reversal. European countries that for decades larded their talent-rich rosters with elite players who had roots in former colonies are now seeing top players opt to represent their family's ancestral home — even if the athlete was born in Europe.
Morocco's stunning victory over Portugal takes on even more significance in that light. After all, Portugal accomplished its best-ever finish at the World Cup — third place at the 1966 tourney — with the help of several players who were born in colonial Mozambique, including the legendary Eusébio da Silva Ferreira.
Aiding the shift toward ancestral countries is a 2004 FIFA rules change making it easier for eligible players to switch their national team affiliation even if they've already played for one country's national youth squad. That was the case for Morocco's Ziyech, who played for the Netherlands' youth team before deciding to help Morocco in its quest to bring a World Cup dream into reality.