Drop by drop the river rises.
This Moroccan proverb is becoming more and more synonymous with what’s transpiring in Qatar in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
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Morocco is simultaneously gaining fans and breaking hearts in its miraculous run in the quadrennial tournament. It initially didn’t seem like the Atlas Lions would make noise after being placed in a Group F that comprised 2018 runner-up Croatia, 2018 third-place Belgium and new CONCACAF champion Canada, but Morocco roared past all teams unscathed with a 2-1-0 win-draw-loss record.
The Atlas Lions started the tournament with a 0-0 draw to Croatia before upsetting Belgium 2-0 in the second group stage game. They controlled their fate to finish first in the group against Canada, and they did just that after securing a 2-1 win where they only conceded an own goal.
Though it seemed like their prize for finishing in first place wasn’t a good one, Morocco pulled off another upset by beating Spain in penalty kicks in their round of 16 matchup. La Furia Roja had finished in second in Group E despite opening the tournament with a 7-0 win over Qatar, but their fury could not top the mountainous roar of Morocco.
Now, the Atlas Lions have booked their ticket to the World Cup semifinals after a thrilling 1-0 victory against Portugal in their quarterfinals clash. Moroccan forward Youssef En-Nesyri delivered the game-winning goal in the 42nd minute on the pitch, crushing Cristiano Ronaldo’s dream of having a victory in what may have been his final World Cup.
Manager Walid Regragui, who was just hired in August to lead the squad, has assembled a talented, well-drilled squad that is fighting for one another every single minute.
“It’s a very big responsibility, and we will fight to make the Moroccan people proud,” Regragui had said in his introductory news conference.
No matter how Morocco’s journey progresses from here, he and the squad have certainly lived up to their words.
Achraf Hakimi, Noussair Mazraoui, Nayef Aguerd and Romain Saiss have formed a formidable backline that is tough to crack, and even if they allow a ball to slip through, Yassine Bounou has kept anything and everything out between the sticks with his commanding performances in his box.
Spain found that out the hard way.
Bounou, who plays club football at Sevilla in Spain’s La Liga, made three historic penalty kick saves to send the country he plays in back home. He came out on top, quite literally, to keep his home country fighting.
Hakimi, who was born in Madrid, Spain, is showing why Paris Saint-Germain bought him for 68 million euros in 2021. The 24-year-old is one of the best right backs in the world, and his panenka — the most high-risk penalty one can take — sealed the door shut for Spain, where his mother worked as a housekeeper, his father as a street vendor.
Hakim Ziyech, the star Chelsea winger, had quit the national team in February after a fallout with the previous manager. He did not want to return to play for his country even if they qualified for the World Cup. He now has one goal and one assist in four games as Morocco’s prominent forward.
If we go down the line, Sofyan Amrabat might’ve attracted bigger clubs thanks to his stellar play in defensive midfield as he enters his prime at age 26. Azzedine Ounahi is also breaking out in center midfield alongside him, and he’s just 22 years old. Zakaria Aboukhlal’s speed off the bench has also been a game changer.
Morocco is just the fourth African nation to ever qualify for the World Cup quarterfinals. The last was Ghana in 2010. This is also the furthest Morocco has trekked in the tournament in just four tries since 1958 when it joined FIFA. In the last tournament in 2018, Morocco failed to win a single game.
How four years, and just a couple of months under Regragui, can change things.
Next up for the Atlas Lions is a showdown against Portugal. The Portuguese backline has been susceptible against strong attacking runs and keeping Rafael Leao, their best transitional threat, on the bench is a risky maneuver.
If Morocco can keep Bruno Fernandes — two goals and three assists in three games — quiet, there’s a chance, along with Goncalo Ramos, who is the hot name after scoring a hat-trick against Switzerland.
And no matter where Morocco’s World Cup journey ends, it has proven to be the best story of the tournament.
This squad is still relatively young, and this experience will no doubt benefit them while they prepare for the 2026 cycle when there will be 48 teams competing. In that span, Morocco may have more young talent emerge through the ranks after a 2022 World Cup quarterfinals berth.
The river is rising in Morocco. And it is making the world rise with it.