Morocco’s Atlas Lions Changing the Narrative for Africa
DURO’S DOHA DIARY
Now, the men have been separated from the boys. With Portugal’s 6-1 whitewash of Switzerland in the last game of the Round of 16 on Tuesday night inside the magnificent Lusail Stadium and Morocco’s stunning 3-0 shock of former champions Spain at the Education City Stadium here in Qatar, only contenders are now left for the quarter final battles. And for us Africans and Arabs here, the Atlas Lions have proved to be our worthy ambassadors. And all thanks to the clean shaven Walid Regragui, 47, the coach who has now made Morocco the first Arab nation to reach the World Cup quarter-finals. Morocco have also joined the exclusive list of African teams that have attained this status in global football. First to reach this milestone were the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon who shocked the world at the 1990 edition hosted by Italy. It was at that tournament that a 38-Year old African from Yaounde, Roger Milla, created history as oldest player to score at the World Cup. Next came the Teranga Lions of Senegal. With that maverick but temperamental El Hadji Diouf in their midst. Senegal shocked then champions France on the way to achieving the quarter final status. Eight years later, Ghana’s Black Stars repeated the feat at South Africa 2010. The Ghanaians were on the verge of making history as first African team to qualify for the semi final of the World Cup when Luis Suarez truncated that dream with his hand ball on the goal line. The resultant penalty was wasted by Asamoah Gyan who slammed that kick against the cross bar. And so ended Ghana’s dream.
It is against this backdrop that Morocco’s feat against the La Furia Roja on Tuesday night means the world to Africans following the Mundial here in Qatar and those watching on television around the world. The Atlas Lions who have now kept three clean sheets in four matches at Qatar 2022, also set record as the second country in World Cup history to win a shoot-out without
conceding. The first was Ukraine in 2006 when defeating Switzerland 3-0.
When Regragui was appointed following the departure of Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic in August, several football followers sneered derisively, wondering what this indigenous coach was going to achieve. The fact that he led Wydad to the Moroccan league and CAF Champions League double last season didn’t mean much to them. But after Regragui produced the formula which masterminded the win for the ages against mighty Spain in the last 16 on Tuesday night, he has become a legend of a sort in that North African country.
The Atlas Lions produced an amazing defensive performance, allowing Spain possession without threatening danger, before winning a penalty shootout to set up a last-eight clash with Portugal.
Morocco first grabbed attention at the World Cup here with a goalless draw against Croatia, the runners-up four years ago. He developed a winning mentality that Morocco would see how they fared against Belgium before their final group game against Canada. The Moroccans, however, stunned the second-ranked Belgians 2-0 to ease their passage to the last 16 for the second time in their history.
Following another victory over Canada, Regragui became the first Arab coach to lead a team to the knockout rounds.
“I told (my players) we should be proud of ourselves,” Regragui said. “It is an opportunity that may not be repeated. Unfortunately, I did not play in the World Cup. God has now given me an opportunity to make history as a coach. I am the happiest person in the world right now,” he stressed with satisfaction.
“I think Africans can go far, why not dream of winning the cup? We want the next generation to dare to dream,” observed Regragui at the post match on Tuesday night.
From the first minute against Spain, those familiar with Moroccan football felt that the 2010 world champions had a long night ahead of them.
Regragui relied on the usual mixture of North African style, combining committed defence with counter-attacks led by Hakim Ziyech, who returned to the national team when Regragui took over from Halilhodzic.
But Regragui’s importance extends far beyond on-field tactics. He gives his team confidence and motivates them in his own unique way.
Regragui has managed to convince his players they are playing for all of Morocco and, as a result, the team camp has been different from before.
Regragui decided to invite the players’ families to the camp her in Doha.
Although 14 of the 26 players in the Moroccan squad were born abroad, their love for their country is clear.
“We fought and made the Moroccan people happy. We made history and Morocco deserves it. The Moroccan people made us united on the field,” Regragui gushed with pride as his players threw him up in celebration of their famous win against Luis Enrique’s men.
As the Atlas Lions prepare to take on Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal on at the
Al-Thumama Stadium on Saturday, the Moroccan, Arab and African world will hope that the fairytale story continue, leading them to set a new standard for African teams in the Mundial. It is not mission in possible as Morocco have beaten Portugal before in 1986. History can repeat itself.