For Walid Ragregui, it was not enough to contemplate one underdog whose improbable path led to a bid to become world champions. His thoughts turned to another. Morocco had become Africa’s first ever semi-finalists on the global stage and their manager turned his thoughts to another sport.
“We have made our people and proud and our continent proud and so many people around the world proud,” he said. “When you watch Rocky you want to support Rocky Balboa and we are the Rocky of the World Cup.”
One unlikely story began in the backstreets of Philadelphia. Another stemmed from Montreal, Madrid and Morocco, given the importance of the their diaspora. They have found fans in Africa and the Arab world. Morocco see themselves as the people’s champions. 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, they are the outsiders who have captured the imagination.
“We are the team that everyone loves in this World Cup because we are showing the world you can succeed even if you don’t have as much talent and money,” Ragregui added. And yet, even if his own comparison with a fictional hero suggested it was a plot plucked straight from Hollywood, he was eager to argue that this was more realistic than many thought. “It is no miracle,” he insisted. “Many of you will say it is, especially in Europe,”
The mention of Europe may have tied in with Ragregui’s pre-match comments that African and Arab coaches are not given opportunities with the superclubs – and perhaps his own excellence will prompt an offer or two for him now – but stemmed more from the identity of Morocco’s victims on their historic surge into uncharted territory.
“We have beaten Belgium, Spain and Portugal without conceding,” their manager said. They have also held Croatia, also with a clean sheet. Their group-stage opponents finished second and third in the last World Cup. In the knockouts, they have met the 2010 World Cup winners and Euro 2016 champions. Next they face France, the 2018 champions, the fifth European power they will face in six games. If the Atlas Lions are waging war for one continent, they are taking on another. “If you want to win the World Cup, you have to play everybody,” an uncomplaining Ragregui added.
He breezed into his job at the end of August imbued with ambition. “When you are the small team, you have to dream and believe,” he said. “When I talk with Hakim Ziyech and Sofyan Amrabat, I say: ‘You don’t come to the World Cup to only play three games.’” Now they will get seven.
His persuasive powers have proved considerable. He talked Ziyech out of premature international retirement, talked his two wingers into becoming workhorses. “Everyone has to work,” he said. “Hakim and [Sofiane] Boufal, I don’t think they have ever run as much in their lives as they did tonight for their country.”
He talked to Youssef En-Nesyri, too, and the striker who has failed to score in La Liga this season delivered a winner against Portugal. “I have always believed in Youssef,” Ragregui said. “I think any coach would love him in their side because he is so hard-working, like [Olivier] Giroud for France.”
He has talked Morocco into the status of contenders; if others thought they were making up the numbers in the last 16, their manager thought they could make a big impression. And, in turn, that they can prove to others they can do likewise. Goalkeeper Bono thinks they are shedding the inferiority complex African sides have often had. Ragregui agrees that can be part of their legacy.
“We have shown it is possible for African teams to get to the semi-finals and maybe even in the final,” he said. “In one press conference 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. 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.”
In particular, they will be wary of the World Cup’s most frugal defence, breached only once and even then inadvertently by their own player, Nayef Aguerd. They have had a blend of belief, organisation and concentration that has allowed them to absorb pressure without conceding shots on target, let alone goals. They have turned defiance into 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 football’s new heavyweights bid to strike two knockout blows. Ragregui said: “I think the world is with Morocco.”
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