Morocco’s family ties fuel its historic run

Morocco coach Walid Regragui is thrown in the air by players celebrating a World Cup win over Spain

Morocco coach Walid Regragui and his players have developed a close bond that has fueled their historic World Cup run. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

Most teams at this World Cup have talked about being family.

That Moroccan team has really been one.

The country’s football federation, at the request of coach Walid Regragui, paid to bring the players’ relatives to Qatar for the tournament, and the team repaid it by becoming the first African country to reach the quarter-finals since Ghana in 2010.

Morocco’s victory over Spain on penalties on Tuesday was just the latest – and most dramatic – surprise of a World Cup that has been full of twists and turns. Argentina, who came to Qatar ranked third in the world and unbeaten in 36 consecutive matches, lost their opening game to No. 51 Saudi Arabia. Argentina went into that game with almost as many World Cup titles, two, as Saudi Arabia had World Cup victories, three.

Lionel Messi and Co. recovered to win their next three games and advance to the quarter-finals, where they face the Netherlands on Friday.

Top ranked Brazil, meanwhile, lost Neymar to an ankle injury in his opener, then stumbled through his next two games. But Neymar’s return in the round of 16 brought back Brazil’s flair and panache, resulting in a dominant 4-1 win over South Korea that re-established the team as tournament favourites. It will face Croatia, the 2018 runners-up, in its quarter-final, while France, the reigning champions, face England on Saturday.

Belgium, Germany, Uruguay, Denmark and Mexico, all placed in the top 14, never made it to Qatar, where all five teams went out in the group stage. Denmark didn’t even win a game.

However, Morocco is still standing. It faces Portugal on Saturday with a chance to become the first African team to reach the World Cup semi-finals, and the $17 million in bonuses it earned by making it this far has already paid for the confederation’s investment to create a family environment around the team.

For Regragui, 47, a former national team defender who played for 13 years in France and Spain, the program has also proved personally satisfying.

“Throughout his career as a player and as a coach, I never traveled to see him,” his mother Fatima told Moroccan sports channel Arryadia. “I have lived in France for more than 50 years now and this is the first competition I left Paris for.”

But it is also part of a larger plan to clean up the toxic environment created by Vahid Halilhodzic, Regragui’s predecessor, who was fired three months before the World Cup. Halilhodzic, who was previously sacked by Japan and Ivory Coast between qualifying for a World Cup and the start of the tournament, was criticized for leaving foreign-born defenders Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui off his roster for last winter’s Africa Cup of Nations, where Morocco were promoted through to the quarter-finals.

Regragui welcomed both players back and Ziyech, who was born to Moroccan parents in the Netherlands, rewarded him by netting one of the three successful penalties that eliminated Spain and sent Morocco through to the last eight. The victory also sparked riotous celebrations in Morocco and Moroccan enclaves across Europe.

Even in Barcelona, ​​Spain’s second-largest city and home to nine players from the defeated national team, people poured into the streets waving flags, honking horns and setting off flares. Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, said the players, 14 of whom were born outside Morocco, represent “the hopes and dreams of Moroccans … all over the world.”

And much of the credit for that goes to Parisian-born Regragui, who briefly served as assistant coach of the national team a decade ago before going on to manage clubs in Morocco and Qatar, winning three league titles. He was managing Wydad AC in his native Botola when he was offered the national team job; many considered it a leap too far.

But Morocco are unbeaten under Regragui and at the World Cup their bunker-down style has proven effective. Although Morocco has conceded possession by large margins in all four of its matches, the only goal it conceded was scored by one of its own players.

Playing like that rarely calls for selflessness on a World Cup roster, but Morocco have rallied around their coach, who started eight foreign-born players against Spain. And the coach showed he also had his players’ backs so they could share their time on football’s biggest stage with their families.

That’s how Achraf Hakimi, whose penalty sealed victory over Spain, could celebrate the victory with his mother, who sat behind the goal and waved a Moroccan flag.

Hakimi, who was born in Madrid and learned to play football at Real Madrid’s academy, also celebrated his side’s group win over Belgium with his mother, posting a picture of their post-match embrace on Instagram with the caption “I love you mum.”

Having family members in Qatar has made the team’s headquarters at Wyndham Doha West Bay feel like home. So has the presence of the approximately 15,000 Moroccans living in Qatar, many of whom helped fill the Education City Stadium on Tuesday, creating a deafening roar.

“It’s impossible to do it without your fans,” Regragui said of his team’s success.

In the quarter-finals Morocco, ranked 22n.d in the world of FIFA, the worst of any team left in the tournament will see its familiar camaraderie tested by a Portuguese side that appears to be riddled with strife. Cristiano Ronaldo, the team’s star striker, was left out of the starting line-up for Tuesday’s 6-1 win over Switzerland in the round of 16 after coach Fernando Santos expressed displeasure with Ronaldo’s attitude.

The benching did not slow Portugal down as Goncalo Ramos, Ronaldo’s replacement, scored three times to become the first player in two decades to claim a hat-trick in his first World Cup start. Ramos also had an assist and after the win he joined his teammates to celebrate with their fans.

Ronaldo, who played the last 17 minutes from the bench, walked off the field alone.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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