Morocco took a gamble less than three months before the start of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It has paid off beyond the extremes of belief.
Since Morocco fired coach Vahid Halilhodžić on Aug. 11 and hired Walid Regragui on Aug. 31, the Atlas Lions are unbeaten in eight matches and have won six of those — including upset wins over Belgium, Spain (in penalties) and Portugal — to become the first African nation to reach the men’s World Cup semifinals.
Facing some of the most talented attacking players in the world during that stretch, the only goal allowed was an own goal against Canada.
They’ve reached the semifinals in Qatar behind a sturdy defense that’s difficult to break down before reaching goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, who has only had to make four saves total against Spain and Portugal — teams who scored seven and six goals in a single game this tournament, respectively.
To reach the World Cup final, the challenge for Morocco is equal parts comforting and daunting. The African nation that has captivated the Arab world and Muslim fans around the globe must quell the attack of one of the top teams of this tournament, which they’ve already done a few times.
But Spain and Portugal are not France.
The 2018 World Cup champion has arguably the most impressive assortment of attacking talent remaining in this tournament and has speed that would give Wile E. Coyote nightmares.
Kylian Mbappe is probably the best player in the world right now. Olivier Giroud is as good as he’s ever been in his illustrious career. Antoine Griezmann can find any pass he wants, and Aurelien Tchouameni bosses the midfield.
What makes France most dangerous is exactly what happened in its 2-1 win in the quarterfinals against England. To win the World Cup, teams need to grab goals seemingly out of thin air. England was the better team throughout the match and controlled large parts of that game, but it took one moment from Tchouameni and Giroud to find the back of the net.
As good as France is, Les Bleus have not looked dominant throughout the tournament. France was fortunate not to be punished for a dumb foul that gave Harry Kane a penalty kick to tie it and probably should have been a red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.
Most of all, France looked vulnerable. Morocco was opportunistic against Portugal and looked completely unafraid.
That’s exactly how they must play to have a shot at reaching the final.
The health of incredible important attacking player Hakim Ziyech will be vital to this match. Defenders Romain Saiss, Noussair Mazraoui, and Naif Aguerd are integral to the squad, too.
Along with Ziyech, Youssef En-Nesyri has been a handful for defenders in the attack and needs to be against France. Morocco’s depth will be tested with only a few days between games to recover physically and emotionally, regardless of injuries.
Morocco will have to defend for long stretches in this match. That will make execution on set pieces and counterattacks essential to pull off another shocker of even greater proportions.
The Atlas Lions will be massive underdogs — as they’ve been the entire tournament. There will also be significant political implications hanging over this match. Morocco was under French rule from 1912-1956, followed by a period of violent civic unrest as Morocco began to be an independent nation.
At full strength, Morocco has the talent to at least compete with France, who’s attempting to be the first champion to make the final in the following World Cup since Brazil in 1998 — which loss to France in the final.
To make the World Cup final, Morocco will have to be the best it has been this tournament. Regragui will do all he can to make that happen. At its best, France just might be too good.