For Walid Regragui, it was not enough to contemplate an underdog whose unlikely path led him to aspire to become world champion. His thoughts turned to another. Morocco had become Africa’s first semi-finalists on the world stage and his coach turned his thoughts to another sport.
“We have made our people and our continent proud and many people around the world proud,” he said. “When you see Rocky you want to support Rocky Balboa and we are the Rocky of the World Cup.”
An unlikely story began on the back streets of Philadelphia. Another came from Montreal, Madrid and Morocco, given the importance of its diaspora. They have found fans in Africa and the Arab world. Morocco sees itself as the people’s champion. In a part of the world where it seemed the preference was for the rich and famous, for Brazil and Argentina as teams, for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as players, it is the outsiders who have captured the imagination.
“We are the team that everyone loves in this World Cup because we are showing the world that you can be successful even if you don’t have that much talent and money,” Regragui added. And yet, even if his own comparison to a fictional hero suggested it was a plot ripped straight out of Hollywood, he was eager to argue that this was more realistic than many realized. “It’s not a miracle,” he insisted. “Many of you will say that it is, especially in Europe”,
The mention of Europe may have been linked to Regragui’s pre-match comments that African and Arab managers don’t have a chance with super clubs, and perhaps his own excellence will prompt an offer or two for him now, but more arose from the Moroccan identity. victims in its historic surge into uncharted territory.
“We have beaten Belgium, Spain and Portugal without conceding,” his coach said. They have also endured Croatia, also with a clean sheet. Their opponents in the group stage finished second and third in the last World Cup. In the qualifiers they have faced the winners of the 2010 World Cup and the 2016 Eurocup champions. They then face France, the 2018 champion, the fifth European power they will face in six games. If the Atlas Lions are waging war for one continent, they are fighting another. “If you want to win the World Cup, you have to play with everyone,” Regragui added without complaint.
He arrived at his job at the end of August imbued with ambition. “When you’re the small team, you have to dream and believe,” he said. “When I talk to Hakim Ziyech and Sofyan Amrabat, I say: ‘You don’t come to the World Cup to play just three games.’ Now they will get seven.
His persuasive powers have proven to be considerable. He talked Ziyech out of a premature international retirement, he convinced the two ends of him to become workhorses. “Everyone has to work,” he said. “Hakim and [Sofiane] Boufal, I don’t think you’ve run as much in your life as you did tonight for your country.”
He also spoke to Youssef En-Nesyri, and the striker who hasn’t scored in La Liga this season gave Portugal victory. “I have always believed in Youssef,” Regragui said. “I think any coach would want him on his side because he is a hard worker, like [Olivier] Giroud for France.
He has spoken of Morocco on the state of the contenders; if others thought they were making up the numbers in the last 16, his manager thought they could make a big impression. And, in turn, that they can show others that they can do the same. Goalkeeper Bono believes that they are getting rid of the inferiority complex that African teams have often had. Regragui agrees that it can be part of his legacy.
“We have shown that it is possible for African teams to reach the semi-finals and maybe even the final,” he said. “At a press conference, they asked me if we can win the World Cup and I said: ‘Why not?’ We can dream, it costs you nothing to have dreams. European countries are used to winning the World Cup and we have played against top teams, we have not had it easy. Anyone who plays us will be afraid of us now.”
In particular, they will be wary of the most frugal defense in the World Cup, breached only once and even inadvertently by their own player, Nayef Aguerd. They have had a mixture of faith, organization and concentration that has allowed them to absorb the pressure without conceding shots on goal, let alone goals. They have made the challenge a feature of every match. They only have two more to go to become the most unexpected World Cup winners of all, and they have plenty of support as soccer’s new heavyweights attempt to land two knockout blows. Regragui said: “I think the world is with Morocco.”
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