How Morocco became the World Cup's Cinderella team
As soon as the final whistle blew and Morocco pulled off yet another upset, this time beating Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in a World Cup quarterfinal 1-0, the entire team walked over to their roaring section of fans and bowed to them.
The Moroccan players and coaches got down on the ground into a sujud position to show appreciation for their overwhelming support over the last month.
Morocco became the first African team to make the World Cup semifinals, where it will face reigning champion France on Wednesday at Al Bayt Stadium (2 p.m. on FOX and the FOX Sports app). And as if there aren’t already an astounding amount of happy Morocco fans in Doha, more are coming to witness history.
Morocco’s Royal Air Maroc will operate 30 special flights to bring soccer fans from Casablanca to Doha for the match against France. These extra trips could add another 20,000 to 30,000 passionate and energetic fans, not all of whom will have tickets, to the thousands that are currently here.
"For me, we have the best fans in the world, maybe [on the same level] as Argentina fans and Brazil fans," Morocco manager Walid Regragui said Tuesday. "I’m very happy because now the world begins to know what is a Moroccan fan. He’s a crazy guy, he loves his country, he loves his club. He can travel anywhere to come support his country.
"I’m very happy because the World Cup can give this picture of the fans of Morocco. And tomorrow, [it will be like we are playing] at home. And it’s very important for us."
The sounds that come from these Moroccan fans inside a stadium are intense. The whistles they blow are like an alarm going off in an empty warehouse, the sound bouncing off concrete walls and growing louder and louder by the second. They do this for the entirety of the match, whether that’s 90 minutes or more.
While their cheering style could be jarring or distracting to anyone else, it motivates this Moroccan squad to keep pulling off the unthinkable. The Atlas Lions tied Croatia and then beat Belgium, Canada, Spain and Portugal. The only goal they conceded was an own goal against Canada. Goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, who has become a fan favorite and goes by the nickname Bono, has been named player of the match twice.
"I think we had a 1% chance of winning the World Cup at the outset," Regragui said. "Now I hope it’s north of 3%, perhaps. But we’re going to try and destroy those statistics tomorrow."
Then a reporter told Regragui that his team’s chances have actually risen.
"Oh, we have a 12% chance of winning the World Cup?" Regragui asked. "OK, well, we’re going to try and make that more."
Much like the mindset that the young United States squad prided itself on while it was still in the tournament, Morocco is a tight-knit team that knows it’s not the most talented side anytime it’s on the pitch.
The advantage it has, though, is in the smaller details. Regragui and his players thrive off fan support. In the locker room, the coach gives speeches on playing for the entire continent of Africa. Players buy in and shoulder that responsibility. They believe they can win. Even the ones who don’t play feel part of the group. In fact, Regragui has been bringing bench players to his "matchday minus one" news conferences. Third-string goalkeeper Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti came ahead of the quarterfinal and midfielder Ilias Chair was there on Tuesday.
Chair, who plays for Queens Park Rangers in the EFL Championship, spoke eloquently and with perspective on what not playing for this Cinderella story of a team has been like.
"I am in the semifinal of a World Cup," said Chair, 25. "As a little boy, I could have never ever dreamed of something like this. Of course, sitting on the bench is not a nice thing. But if you see what we have created as a team, you can see that no one really cares as long as the job is done at the end of the day. So when the manager gives me a chance, I will be ready, and I will give 100% for him and for my teammates and for my country.
"Me feeling something because I didn’t play? No. I don’t feel anything. I feel proud. And like I said before, I’m in a semifinal of a World Cup and that’s a real dream come true, and hopefully it doesn’t end here."
Regragui, 47, took over the national team two months before the World Cup began and has been one of the more inexperienced coaches here. He’s a dual-national, born in a small town in France, but played for the Moroccan national team from 2001-09. He’s incredibly likable — players love him and local reporters give him standing ovations when he arrives for postgame news conferences.
He didn’t have much time to put his mark on the group before the tournament started, but in a short period of time has made an immense impact. He was asked on Tuesday what his "secrets" to success are.
"I tried to build a team spirit," the manager said. He’s also invited the player’s families — parents, wives and children – to be around the team. Family is a hugely important part of Moroccan culture and everybody celebrates on the field together after games. Photos of winger Sofiane Boufal dancing with his mother after beating Portugal went viral. Achraf Hakimi, who has the task of marking PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe on Wednesday, was seen giving his mom a hug in the stands. Regragui was also spotted embracing his mom.
"That’s helped us go far in this tournament," Regragui said. "The players believed in this project and I found a great bunch of lads who love their country and believe in me, as well."
Morocco has never been to a World Cup semifinal, but isn’t happy just to be here. Regragui has ingrained into his players that they are one of the four best teams in the world, and they want more.
"We are a very ambitious team," Regragui said. "We’re hungry. But I don't know if that's going to be enough. I think it can be because we have a great team spirit. We’re very confident and determined to rewrite the history books. We want Africa to be on the top of the world. We’re going to have to be very strong to progress further in this tournament. We are not the favorites, but we are confident though.
"You might say I'm mad, crazy. But I think a bit of craziness is good."