Morocco’s improbable, history-making run at the FIFA World Cup 2022 will get its ultimate test. Africa’s first World Cup semi-finalist is playing defending champion France and its star striker Kylian Mbappe, the leader of a new wave of football superstars coming out of an era dominated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Tonight’s (12:30 AM IST, December 15) match has cultural and political connotations. Morocco was under French rule from 1912-1956 and the outcome is far from the foregone conclusion many would presume by looking at the names of the players and the rankings of the teams.
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The Atlas Lions have exceeded all expectations in Qatar by beating second-ranked Belgium in the group stage and then eliminating European powerhouses Spain and Portugal in the knockout phase to reach the semi-finals.
‘We can dream’
No African or Arab nation has ever gotten this far. It is one of the biggest stories in the World Cup’s 92-year history and Morocco is not done yet.
“I was asked if we can win the World Cup and I said, why not? We can dream, it doesn’t cost you anything to have dreams,” said Walid Regragui, Morocco’s French-born coach.
“European countries are used to winning the World Cup and we have played top sides; we have not had an easy run. Anyone playing us is going to be afraid of us now,” he added
Even France? The defending champion has just passed its own big test by coming through a tough quarterfinal match against England, on a rare occasion when Mbappe was kept quiet.
Tough task for Mbappe
It won’t be easy for Mbappe to add to his tally of five goals, joint leader in Golden Boot standings with Lionel Messi, against Morocco, which is yet to concede a goal to an opposition player at this World Cup or indeed in its nine games since Regragui was hired in August.
The only goal allowed was an own-goal by its defender, Nayef Aguerd, against Canada in the group stage. Morocco might have some injuries now Aguerd and fellow centre back Romain Saiss could be missing the semi-final but Regragui’s game plan relies on team shape and discipline more than any specific individual.
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“We recovered well. We have good doctors and every day we get good news. No one is ruled out and no one is for certain,” Regragui told reporters on Tuesday. “Well use the best team possible.”
The Morocco coach said his team is ready to change the “mentality” of Africa, and he has told his players not to settle for anything less than the top prize.
“We’re going to fight to move on, for the African nations, for the Arab world,” he said.
Regragui said defender Achraf Hakimi is looking forward to a “nice duel” with Mbappe, his teammate at Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), but added that France doesn’t just depend on its star player.
“We’ll have to block Kylian, but not just him. Hakimi is super motivated to beat his friend,” he said. The key to winning the game, he said, will be Morocco’s “team spirit” and the support of the crowd at Al Bayt Stadium, where French President Emmanuel Macron is set to be in attendance along with tens of thousands of green-and-red-clad Morocco fans. It will feel like a home game for Morocco’s players, which might level things up even more.
“We have the best fans in the world along with Argentines and Brazilians. They’re people who come from anywhere in the world to support their country,” Regragui said. “We’re going to play like being at home and that’s the most important thing in the world.”
France starts as the big favourite, though, because of its star quality and experience. In Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, a forward who has reinvented himself as a midfield playmaker at the World Cup, the team has two of the World Cup’s leading players while Olivier Giroud’s winner against England took him to four goals.
The defending champion has attacking threats from everywhere and that intangible quality of just knowing how to get the job done. France centre-back Raphael Varane said there will be no danger of complacency among his teammates in a game against the world’s No. 22-ranked team.
“We have enough experience in the team to not fall into that trap,” he said. “We know Morocco isn’t here by chance. It is up to us, as experienced players, to make sure we are all prepared for another battle.”
‘Best defence team’
France’s coach Didier Deschamps said Morocco has defended well but the team is not only about that.
“They’re a team that have defended pretty well, but they aren’t only defensive, otherwise they wouldn’t have reached the semi-finals,” said Deschamps.
“They also have some offensive tools, but (with) a defensive base, which is well-organised and very rational. With that they have skill because of attacking players like (Youssef) En-Nesyri, (Hakim) Ziyech or (Sofiane) Boufal, who can create problems for their opponents. They master their craft, just like any other big team that are in the semi-finals.
“They have the skill to defend very well, for sure. They defend properly. They’re certainly the best team in terms of defence though, as I said, they’re here because they can also score goals,” he added.
The winner of the France-Morocco game meets Argentina in the final on Sunday (December 18) at the Lusail Stadium. The loser faces Croatia in the third place play-off on Saturday.
- Goalkeepers: Alphonse Areola (West Ham United), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), Steve Mandanda (Rennes).
- Defenders: Lucas Hernandez (Bayern Munich), Theo Hernandez (AC Milan), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris St Germain), Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool), Jules Kounde (Barcelona), Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich), William Saliba (Arsenal), Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich), Raphael Varane (Manchester United).
- Midfielders: Eduardo Camavinga (Real Madrid), Youssouf Fofana (AS Monaco), Matteo Guendouzi (Olympique de Marseille), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Aurelien Tchouameni (Real Madrid), Jordan Veretout (Olympique de Marseille).
- Forwards: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Olivier Giroud (AC Milan), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Kylian Mbappe (Paris St Germain), Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig).
- Goalkeepers: Yassine Bounou (Sevilla), Munir El Kajoui (Al Wehda), Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti (Wydad Casablanca).
- Defenders: Nayef Aguerd (West Ham United), Yahia Attiat Allah (Wydad Casablanca), Badr Benoun (Qatar SC), Achraf Dari (Stade Brest), Jawad El Yamiq (Real Valladolid), Achraf Hakimi (Paris St Germain), Noussair Mazraoui (Bayern Munich), Romain Saiss (Besiktas).
- Midfielders: Sofyan Amrabat (Fiorentina), Selim Amallah (Standard Liege), Bilal El Khannouss (Racing Genk), Yahya Jabrane (Wydad Casablanca), Azzedine Ounahi (Angers), Abdelhamid Sabiri (Sampdoria).
- Forwards: Zakaria Aboukhlal (Toulouse), Soufiane Boufal (Angers), Ilias Chair (Queens Park Rangers), Walid Cheddira (Bari), Youssef En-Nesyri (Sevilla), Abde Ezzalzouli (Osasuna), Abderrazak Hamdallah (Al Ittihad), Amine Harit (Olympique Marseille), Hakim Ziyech (Chelsea).
(With agency inputs)