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Will Morocco become Africa’s fourth great World Cup team?

08:48 SAST 2022/12/06
Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech of Morocco.
Could the Atlas Lions be the fourth great African team to reach the Last Eight?

In the World Cup’s 94-year history, only three African teams have reached the quarter-finals—it remains the glass ceiling for the continent’s teams at the tournament.

Each of the three sides that reached this stage—Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010—have gone down in legend.

They were special sides; they had star players, unity, clear strategies, and particularly, personality.

Each enjoyed their landmark, statement victories en route to their eventual elimination; triumphs that are still remembered and celebrated to this day, and none bowed out limply, with only extra time or penalties preventing them from progressing.

Cameroon defeated Diego Maradona’s Argentina and, inspired by the timeless Roger Milla, reached the last eight before falling to England in extra time.

For Senegal, their tournament began with a 1-0 triumph over France, the reigning world and European champions, in a remarkable giant killing, and after dispatching Sweden in extra time in the Last 16, they were ousted by Turkey…but only in additional time.

In 2010, Ghana saw off dark horses Serbia in the group stage, but the highlight of their campaign was Asamoah Gyan’s extra time goal to dispatch the United States in the Round of 16 before setting up a quarter-final against Uruguay.

That match, of course, has gone down in legend as one of the most dramatic in World Cup history, even if Africa’s representatives were on the losing side.

2022 has already been a quite remarkable campaign for African teams.

Before Qatar, the continent’s sides had never before won more than three group stage matches in a single edition of the tournament; in 2022, they won seven, with Senegal making good on pre-tournament expectations and Ghana taking their destiny in their own hands before falling to Uruguay.

However, talk of ‘progress’ perhaps needs to be put on ice, with only two of the continent’s five reaching the knockout stages—equalling the African record—and Africa’s champions Senegal then thoroughly outclassed by England in their Last 16 bout.

This leaves Morocco as the last African team standing as we head into the final day of quarter-finals.

They’re outsiders against Spain, as while La Roja made global headlines when they smashed Costa Rica 7-0, the defeat by Japan and the draw with Germany have dampened expectations.

More importantly, perhaps, Morocco’s performances to date suggest that they have all of the qualities that have been common among Africa’s history-makers.

In terms of star players, the likes of Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech have turned on the style on the grandest stage, while Youssef En-Nesyri’s double against Canada also suggests that Morocco’s only outstanding weakness—a lack of goal threat—might have been solved.

Their defensive unit wasn’t breached for two and a half games at the start of the campaign, while in Yassine Bounou, they boast one of the most complete goalkeepers in the tournament.

They’ve already enjoyed a landmark victory—defeating Belgium, ranked second in the world—to eliminate the fancied Red Devils in the group stage, with the Atlas Lions fully deserving their triumph against Roberto Martinez’s side.

They also held 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia 2-0, and made light work of a Canada team who were already eliminated heading into their final match. Ultimately, Morocco topped their group—emulating the feat of the 1986 generation.

There’s a clearly defined style about this Morocco side, who boast a mean defence, a lean and effective counter-attack, and also technical players like Hakimi, Ziyech or Sofiane Boufal who can both hurt teams from open play from wide areas, and at set pieces.

Having neutralised Croatia’s fabled midfield three, the Atlas Lions will be confident of enjoying a similar shutout against Spain’s technical maestros in the heart of the park.

Morocco drew 2-2 with Spain at the last World Cup—they were unfortunate not to win when Iago Aspas netted a 91st-minute equaliser—and certainly won’t be afraid or overawed by their illustrious opponents when the two sides go head to head.

Morocco’s passionate support, attractive playing style, individual qualities and wholehearted approach have won over many neutral admirers already this tournament; they’ve already tasted glory so far, and have the qualities to secure one of Africa’s greatest ever World Cup victories.