Multimillion-Dollar Full-Backs And Upscale Stars: Morocco Can Beat Anyone

Building steady momentum, Morocco—yes, Morocco—is a danger to whichever opponents it may face next at the World Cup in Qatar. After swatting aside the might of Belgium, it’s in with an excellent chance of more soccer once its final Group F game with eliminated Canada finishes at the Al Thumama stadium in the capital Doha on December 1.

There are signs that this team—not a standout name before the tournament—can escape a tricky opening phase and do it all. That is despite only reaching the knockout rounds of this competition once before and facing the more fancied Croatia and Belgium in the first encounters here.

While the spotlight has been on Belgium and whether its golden generation can still deliver the biggest prize, it’s coincidental that group opponent Morocco has quietly been nurturing a collection of genuine talents. And with a large population of people with Moroccan heritage living in Belgium, it’s striking that its supporters are hailing such an exciting cohort as their fellow citizens watch the Red Devils stumble at the end of an era.

This Morocco team is different. For once, its coach Walid Regragui has his enviable crop of happy players in one place, which was not the case during the unstable stewardship of his predecessor Vahid Halilhodžić. Even with little time ahead of the event, replacing the Bosnian with a Moroccan leader has proved a calculated decision.

Under the no-nonsense Halilhodžić, there was no creative spark from Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech, one of its best assets, due to a row that left him out in the cold. Now he’s back in the fold, and the group dynamic appears in tip-top condition after four points from two encounters against the Croatians and Belgians.

It has the money to back up its credentials, too, with some of the most capable players in Qatar—such as Youssef En-Nesyri and Sofiane Boufal—wearing Morocco red and green this winter. But most eye-catching are the flying full-backs Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui—valuable assets to clubs Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, respectively. Having them to call upon is a blessing for a competitor ranked outside the top 20 in FIFA’s rankings.

For someone who has plied his trade at some of Europe’s best sides, Hakimi does not always receive the acclaim he deserves—apart from the teams investing heavily in him. So far in his career, he has cost Inter Milan and PSG over €110 million ($114 million) combined in transfer spending. That is a staggering amount for a defender, at least by name.

Regarding Mazraoui, German powerhouse Bayern Munich signed him for free, but such a coup doesn’t reflect his value. Athletic and rangy, the 25-year-old is comfortably within the €25 million (€26 million) to €40 million ($41 million) range after developing at the Champions League level with Ajax.

There is wind in Moroccan sails, but things will not get any easier, never mind its stars. Regragui has acknowledged the physical toll suffered from the last victory, and although Canada will soon be flying home, there will be no lack of effort from an opposition still searching for a first-ever World Cup win. Add injury worries to the mix, such as a knock sustained by Hakimi, and the side has to recover before continuing to stride forward.

However, this is a spirited bunch in which the lesser-known players also more than play their part. Morocco has not lit up the tournament with the best statistics, but it has managed to nullify top teams—to whom it has conceded just five shots on target so far. That bodes well with knockout soccer on the horizon, which will demand more from the confident North Africans.

On current form, the squad will fancy itself against anyone should it make the next round. Based on how the draw is shaping up, its next acid test could well arrive against Spain, Germany or Japan.