Morocco in the quarterfinals, the reasons for a success

TV5MONDE: What does Morocco’s historic success against Spain tell us on Tuesday in the round of 16 of the World Cup?

Mansour Loum, journalist, editor-in-chief of Sports News Africa : In addition to the technical quality of the players which allows them to keep the ball, bring it out and project themselves quickly, I see two confirmations.

First, we had seen that Morocco was a solid team and above all a team that conceded very few goals. During the competition, the Moroccans only conceded one goal, and again it was an own goal against Canada. You know, to go far in this kind of competition, you have to concede very few goals. This rule, Morocco is applying it to the letter!

The second lesson, in my opinion, is that in this World Cup, Morocco is the most balanced African team. When you meet a team -on paper- stronger than you, with possessions and chances, it is an indispensable quality.

We saw it with, for example, Senegal which was twisted on certain sequences. When I speak of unbalanced teams, I am thinking of those teams clearly cut in two with an attacking block and a defending block, but with an almost no man’s land in midfield, where the opponent is outnumbered, which allows you to walk around and pierce quickly. This is where Morocco are very, very good: they have a fairly compact block capable of moving forward and backward at the same time. That’s the balance.

The unpublished “Lions of the Atlas”

► The Moroccans become the fourth quarter-finalist from the African continent, after Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana. Morocco will try against Portugal to join the last four, which all the other African teams have so far failed.

► In 1986, Morocco was the first African country to emerge from the pools, but it was stopped in the round of 16 by the FRG, the Federal Republic of Germany.

► This is the first time that an African coach has qualified his team for the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 were all ruled by Europeans, respectively Soviet Valeri Nepomniachi, Frenchman Bruno Metsu, and Serbian Milovan Rajevac.

Read: World Cup, African pioneers: Cameroon 1990
Read: World Cup, pawnsAfrican nations, Senegal in 2002

TV5MONDE: At the back of this block, there is someone who particularly impressed against Spain, it’s Yassine Bounou. Is his performance in Qatar a surprise?

Mansour Loum: Honestly, for those who watch La Liga, the Spanish championship, there is nothing surprising. He is one of the best goalkeepers in La Liga. So of course, all the goals are focused on Thibaut Courtois, the Belgian goalkeeper of Real Madrid who is a real “monster”, but for us, he has been doing very, very good things with Sevilla for two years. At the end of last season, he also received the Zamora trophy awarded by the major sports newspaper Marca and which rewards the goalkeeper who has made the most saves in relation to the shots suffered. I would add that on penalties, he also has very good statistics.

TV5MONDE: A strong defense crowned by an exceptional goalkeeper does not necessarily encourage attacking. Isn’t the game of Moroccans likely to be boring?

Mansour Loum: Walid Regragui, the coach, knows how to adapt to the opponent. We saw, for example, against Croatia, that it was much more enterprising. But against Belgium or Spain, they understood that they would not have the ball. If they decided to challenge, to climb very high, they took the risk of exposing themselves, losing their balance and conceding goals.

The decision was therefore to wait for the opponent with a medium block, not too low. It worked perfectly. The goal of this kind of competition is simply to win, not necessarily to play well! Moreover, against Croatia or against Canada, the Moroccans were also able to score. It would therefore be simplistic to only watch the match against Spain.

TV5MONDE: At the head of the Moroccan selection, as you mentioned, there is a coach, Walid Regragui, who arrived at his post at the end of August 2022. Who is responsible for the success of Moroccans? Regragui or his predecessor Vahid Halilhodžić?

Mansour Loum: A bit of both. In fact, Vahid Halilhodžić had brought this defensive rigor which was a little lacking. Rigor and seriousness. But unfortunately, his speech no longer passed and I think he got to the end with this team. Without wanting to rewrite history, I don’t think Morocco would have managed to do what they are doing now if Vahid Halilhodžić had stayed.

We needed a new coach, perhaps more in tune with the current generation, with a new discourse and new ideas. Morocco needed a project more focused on the game. The players are ball players. They do not need a military speech, but they need a little more freedom, creativity. And I think Walid Regragui brought that.

Moroccan coach Walid Regragui received a standing ovation from his players after the game against Spain on December 6 in Qatar.

TV5MONDE: A team like that of Morocco was not built in a day: there is a lot of work upstream on the part of the Moroccan football authorities…

Mansour Loum: Morocco embarked on a real training policy some time ago. There is of course the Mohammed VI Academy but also, for a few years, there is Mohammedia which extends over tens of hectares. In addition to this local breeding ground, Morocco also has a successful championship on the continental scene. Without forgetting the Moroccans who play in Europe and the bi-nationals like Hakim Ziyech or Noussair Mazraoui who both have dual Dutch and Moroccan nationality but have chosen to play for Morocco.

TV5MONDE: Next Saturday, in the quarter-finals, Morocco will face Portugal. On which of his qualities will he have to rely?

Mansour Loum: Portugal have a more direct game than Spain which relies on excessive possession, sometimes in a caricatural way. Portugal may be more dangerous for the Moroccans because they will push them to attack. But at the same time, Morocco will certainly try to find spaces in the Portuguese defense.

Indeed, Pepe is 39 years old and no longer has the legs of a 20-year-old! An attacker like En-Nesyri or someone very strong like Boufal will probably try to find space behind the defenders and they can hurt a lot! They have the manpower for that because they can also count on Hakim Ziyech and Sofyan Amrabat who is in the process, not of revealing himself, but in the process of taking on another dimension. He has become the cornerstone in the middle of the field, he goes to coal. With all this, Morocco really has the opportunity to do something in the quarter-finals!