Lionel Messi may have just slalomed his way into the final, but Morocco is the 2022 World Cup’s best story.
On the field, Morocco’s Atlas Lions have been near perfect. Their stifling defense has only allowed one goal—an own goal against Canada in the group stage—despite the fact that their coach Walid Regragui has been in charge of the team for less than 100 days. (On Wednesday, he will face off against a France team led by Didier Deschamps, who has run his squad for more than a decade.) Despite a relative dearth of world-class players—their best is the whirlwind rightback Achraf Hakimi, a 24-year-old dynamo at Paris St. Germain—Morocco has won with team play, a rock solid midfield, led by the tireless Azzedine Ounahi, and extraordinary work from Yassine Bounou, the tournament’s standout goalkeeper. Morocco’s philosophy is simple. Choke off the opponents’ offense and then counterattack with speed and control.
The team’s success has come at a cost. Its entire back line, with the exception of Hakimi, is injured. Its main attacking substitute, Walid Cheddira, who loves charging at opposing defenses despite seemingly being allergic to shooting on target, is suspended. Its opponent is, with apologies to Messi’s Argentina, by far the best team left in the tournament. But Morocco’s success has been an even better story off the field. In a World Cup that has featured many indelible images—Cristiano Ronaldo crying, Luis Suarez crying, Neymar crying—the best may very well be one of the team’s standout midfielders, Sofiane Boufal, dancing with his mother after his team’s upset victory over Portugal.
Regragui inherited a team where the vibes were all off—his predecessor, Bosnian Vahid Halilhodžić, alienated the team’s other star, Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech, among other players. (To be fair, this is what Halilhodžić does more or less everywhere he works.) One way Regragui fixed the situation was to invite the players’ families and parents to join them in Qatar—hence the flood of lovely images of the players hugging and dancing with their mothers after each improbable victory.
The images and good vibes extend well beyond the walls of whichever of Qatar’s glitzy stadiums the Moroccan team is playing in. Cross-national solidarity is rare in the World Cup: Brazilian fans are certainly not lining up to cheer on Argentina in the final and will, in fact, most likely root for whichever team Messi faces off against on Sunday.
After Morocco’s victories there are, inevitably, a flood of images and videos from not only from Casablanca and Marrakech, but also across the Arab world, Africa, Europe, and even America. Fans celebrate in Cameroon and in Libya, but also in Belgium, France, and England—countries where, incidentally, many of Morocco’s players were born. The Moroccan team’s embrace of Palestine—its flag is frequently paraded around grounds after victories, alongside Morocco’s striking green star—has only deepened the sense of solidarity. “I didn’t expect this. It’s spreading the word and showing that Palestine is not just a political issue, it’s a human issue,” said Ahmed Sabri, a Palestinian fan told the Associated Press in Doha over the weekend.
Of course, the team’s success is felt nowhere as deeply as it is in Morocco. Its fans know that it may likely never make it this far again. Already indomitable in Doha, an additional 30 planeloads of fans traveled to Qatar for the game on Wednesday. The mood in Morocco itself is similarly jubilant. The game against France on Wednesday, moreover, has historical overtones: The former French protectorate Morocco, having defeated two of its former colonizers—Portugal in the quarterfinals and Spain in the round of 16—will attempt to make it a trifecta, facing its last colonial overlord in the semifinals.
“It’s actually very interesting just from a historical perspective and the feelings people have about being colonized by the French et cetera,” Rania Batrice, a Democratic strategist who is visiting Morocco through a State Department program called Middle East Partnership Initiative, told The New Republic. “I’m in Rabat currently—even before that match happened between England and France there were people around me saying that they were hoping that it was going to be France. Almost like a historical rematch.”
International coverage of the political undertones of the matchup have been pouring out over the past few days. French President Emmanuel Macron planned to travel to Qatar to watch the game. The French embassy in Washington, D.C., scheduled a watch party as well.
The matchup has sparked scrutiny of Arab identity, a discussion of what this means for people who have dual citizenship between the countries, and triggered the defeated far-right French politician Éric Zemmour to gripe about the Moroccans celebrating in Paris.
Mostly, though, Moroccans are embracing the joy of their improbable run into the semifinals. “I feel like every single place I went by they had converted, even the sidewalk—their little teeny tiny outdoor space turned into the full sidewalk. And someplaces they have large glass doors that can open and they were just opening things all the way up so that everyone could see the televisions inside,” Batrice said. “Every single store and cafe that was up and down the marina was just packed with people. Absolutely packed. A lot of the places didn’t have screens outdoors but they brought in a television to put outside so everybody could see as well as possible. You sort of had your little area where you were watching but you could hear the roar of the crowd all the way up and down the marina.”
Morocco’s beautiful run may very well end on Wednesday, as it faces the defending champions and the World Cup’s best attack. But—again, with apologies to Leo Messi—even if it bows out now, its status as its best story will remain.