Morocco’s players stood at attention for the country’s national anthem before Tuesday’s World Cup knockout game with Spain, although more than a few seemed to struggle with the lyrics.
It wasn’t an act of protest, it’s just that the anthem wasn’t theirs since eight of Morocco’s 11 starters were born somewhere other than Morocco. But they’ll have another four days to learn the song after upsetting Spain on penalty kicks following 120 scoreless minutes, becoming the first African team since 2010 to reach the World Cup quarterfinals.
“When you’re in the thick of it, you really can’t realize what you just achieved,” goalkeeper Yassine Bounou said. “We have to stay focused. Maybe in time we will realize what we achieved.”
Here’s a little of what Morocco, the surprise team of this World Cup, has achieved: it shut out Belgium and Croatia — both top-three finishers in the last World Cup — in the first round to become the first African team this century to win its group. It has gone 390 minutes without allowing its opponents to score, the only goal conceded coming on an own goal.
And it capped that off Tuesday by withstanding a relentless assault from a Spanish team that had the ball nearly 80% of the game, took more than twice as many shots and completed more than four times as many passes. Yet the ball never would up in the back of the net, not even in penalty kicks, making Morocco the first African nation to advance in the World Cup on penalties.
“You know when you have a goalkeeper like we have, you have a chance to go through,” said Walid Regragui, Morocco’s French-born coach.
Everyone on Morocco’s team is from somewhere else, which is part of its strength. In a World Cup that has been truly global — at least 136 players, nearly one in five, are representing countries they weren’t born in — Morocco is the ultimate united nation with 14 of the 26 players on its roster having been born elsewhere.
Regragui, who took over the team following the August sacking of Vahid Halilhodzic, pushed the Moroccan federation to open the national team up to anyone who qualified. The team hasn’t lost a game since.
“For me, I fight for that a lot of times with my country,” he said. “Before this World Cup, we had a lot of problem about the guys born in Europe and the guys born in Morocco.”
Tuesday he beat Spain with a Canadian-born goalkeeper and successful penalty kicks from players born in the Netherlands and Spain.
“Today I think it showed to the world every Moroccan is Moroccan with his passport,” said Regragui, who was born to Moroccan parents in Paris. “When he comes to the national team, you want to die, you want to fight. And that is what I want to show. And now, we have one example.
“You have different football. You have some players who born in some players born in Italy, some players from Spain, players from France, Netherlands and Belgium. Every country has a football culture, and you make a milkshake with that.”
Morocco is hardly an outlier. More than a third of Tunisia’s World Cup team was born in France and five other World Cup teams had rosters that were at least a quarter foreign-born. But Morocco is the only one still playing and it got to the quarterfinals with a performance that was more guts than guile, more tenacity than technique.
“We realized we weren’t going to have a lot of possession,” Regragui said. “We were humble enough to say we aren’t France, Belgium or Germany.”
So Morocco stayed patient and waited for opportunities that rarely presented themselves. As a result, Morocco put just two shots on target in 120 minutes — but more important, it gave up just one to Spain.
“Of course we want to go down in the history books. We are trying to make some momentum here in Africa. A lot of African teams are making great strides.”
— Walid Regragui, Morocco’s French-born coach
“We didn’t want to play for penalties,” Regragui said. “But we knew we had one of the best goalkeepers in the world.”
And Bounou, who plays club soccer for Sevilla, didn’t disappoint, saving two penalty kicks and watching another bounce off the right post.
“There’s a little bit of feeling, a little bit of luck,” Bounou said. “You know how penalties are.”
That left it to Paris Saint-Germain defender Achraf Hakimi, who was born in Spain and raised in Real Madrid’s academy, to deliver the dagger with a Panenka that ended the World Cup for the 2010 champions.
Afterward, Morocco’s jubilant players tossed Bounou in the air, then chased down Regragui and did the same to him. In the locker room, the coach took a phone call from Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, who congratulated the team for becoming the first from Morocco to get past the round of 16 and the first to win more than one game in a World Cup.
But Regragui made clear his team’s mission isn’t over. No African team has won a World Cup quarterfinal; a win over Portugal on Saturday would make Morocco the first.
“Of course we want to go down in the history books,” he said. “We are trying to make some momentum here in Africa. A lot of African teams are making great strides.”
Even ones that aren’t completely African.
“I’m international. I grew up in France. And I studied to be a coach in France,” said Regragui, who played 45 games as a defender for Morocco. “But I was lucky enough to have my country support me.”