When Wolves had one of the best defensive records in Europe last season and Romain Saiss looked to be in the best shape of his life, Bruno Lage came up with a new nickname for an otherwise unheralded centre-back: “The Moroccan Maldini”. It may turn out that the former Wolves manager was wrong. Because, for everything that the great Paolo Maldini won, he lacked a medal. Lage should have chosen another defensive great: Moroccan Daniel Passarella, Moroccan Franz Beckenbauer, Moroccan Bobby Moore.
Because each was a World Cup-winning captain and now Saiss, currently from Besiktas, could join them. If one obstacle in his way is France, the country of his birth, another is the injury that caused him to fall on a stretcher in the quarterfinal victory against Portugal. The immediate feeling was fear that the 32-year-old tournament was over. Saiss hopes he can still take on Les Bleus.
“I’ll try,” he said. “I don’t know. I will see and do some exams to see what kind of injury I have, but I will do my best to be on the court. I hope everything goes well, but if I feel it is too difficult, I will not risk it and put my team in trouble just to play the semi-final. But I will do my best to be there like I did my best to be here for 55 minutes. [against Portugal].”
Morocco endured plenty of pressure in his absence, with the backup central defense pairing of Achraf Zari and Jawad El Yamiq holding their own against Portugal’s galaxy of talented attackers. Morocco’s progress so far has been a triumph of spirit, as well as organization. If your first 11 have confounded expectations, the same is definitely true for your substitutes.
“He showed the character and mentality of this team,” Saiss said. “Everyone is ready to play, it doesn’t matter if they haven’t played for a while or come for every game. We put a lot of energy into each game, physically and mentally it’s difficult but it feels great. We know that every game is really difficult because we face only the best teams in the World Cup, so it’s even better afterwards, when you win.”
Now, perhaps, Saiss in the shape of his life. Only one player in the tournament has made more than 30 clearances of him; no one has surpassed 13 tackles in his own defensive third from his Atlas Lions teammates Achraf Hakimi and Sofyan Amrabat.
Amrabat’s semi-final matchup with Aurelien Tchouameni pits two of the most outstanding defensive midfielders in the World Cup against each other. One difference, with Morocco’s possession peaking at 42 per cent against Canada and dropping to 24 per cent against Spain, is that they have had a lot more to defend. Amrabat is alone in playing every minute of the World Cup in Morocco so far.
The Fiorentina player is prepared to take on a heavy workload. “It’s very hard,” he said. “I have played almost 30 games this season already in three or four months. So it’s very difficult. But you don’t have a choice. You are in the semifinals. Each one has to go to the end, ask for the maximum of himself, of his body. Now it’s important to recover.”
Accumulated fatigue is a problem. He found 90 minutes against Portugal tougher than 120 against Spain. “Maybe this was more difficult because we were a bit more tired,” Amrabat explained. “We played against Spain and it was a very tough match. I started this game not completely fresh. It’s the World Cup, you have to give it your all, I ran like crazy until the end”.
Amrabat was born in the Netherlands but of Moroccan descent and, like his brother Nordin, has opted to play for the country of his heritage. Now his achievements have thrilled his family. “They are very proud,” he said. “I see it in their eyes, they were crying. You start playing soccer to make them proud. They are your family. They always help you. When I was a child, my father always brought me to football, he was always with me, it was very nice that we can give this back to them ”.
There is a chance to make them even more proud. “It’s very, very special,” Amrabat added. “Hopefully we can improve and reach the final.” Morocco’s charge has been fueled by the belief that they can win the World Cup. “Yes, why not?” he asked.
For Saiss, the man who may hold the trophy in his hands next Sunday, a dream may come true. “It’s unbelievable for the whole country, for Africa,” he said. “We dream of course, dreaming is free, but doing it is different. I know we made history, but we want to continue making history. We’ll see.”
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