Walid Regragui wanted no excuses.
“We’re not going to hide, we’re not going to complain. We’re here on a mission,” he said when asked about the injuries that hampered Morocco ahead of the quarter-final. Saturday’s World Cup against Portugal.
“A national team should be proud to represent their country, their people. They should bring people together. We made people happy, we made people proud, but that’s not the only reason we’re here. We’re here to win games and get as far in the tournament as we can.”
Walid Regargui didn’t want excuses, and he didn’t need them.
His Moroccan team are in the semi-finals of the World Cup after beating Portugal 1-0. They had already caused a stir by beating Spain to reach the last eight, but now, for the first time in the tournament’s long history, an African side are just one game away from reaching the final.
Morocco had written its own history by reaching the quarter-finals for the first time. Regragui, meanwhile, was the first African manager to coach a game at this stage of a World Cup.
Ticketing issues at the Al Thumama stadium meant the pitch didn’t fill up until the quarter-final was well into the game, but the noise from both sides, both picked up by Moroccan fans, never ceased. .
Against Spain, Morocco went with their backs to the wall, but Regragui had his reasons and this tactic was justified when Achraf Hakimi netted the winning free-kick.
This time, his team went on the attack. Yes, they were playing what their coach described as “one of the best teams in the world”, but they showed no fear. Azzedine Ounahi was sensational in midfield, Sofiane Boufal dazzled on the wing and Youssef En-Nesyri beat Diogo Costa with a cross from the left to give Morocco the lead three minutes before half-time.
Portugal, who had come closest to Joao Felix before Morocco’s breakthrough, would have had an immediate response had Bruno Fernandes’ sensational half-volley dipped under the crossbar. The playmaker wanted a penalty moments later but his appeals were rightly dismissed.
When Morocco, already stripped of Noussair Mazraoui and Nayef Aguerd through injury, lost the latter’s defensive partner Romain Saiss, it was feared it would be one injury too many, especially with Cristiano Ronaldo – benched for a second game in a row – on the pitch as a Substitute in the 51st minute.
But Morocco, under the impetus of its coach constantly patrolling its technical area, wanted to “rewrite the history books”. Where Ghana in 2010, Senegal in 2002 and Cameroon in 1990 failed, the Atlas Lions will succeed.
Sofyan Amrabat fought in front of the defence, Jawad El Yamiq castigated the clearances; the only time he panicked, goalkeeper Yassine Bounou caught Joao Felix’s shot over the crossbar.
Ronaldo put on a frustrated figure. What is surely his last World Cup appearance came as a substitute, and in his 48 minutes on the pitch, including stoppage time, he pulled off an attempt, a snap by which Bounou refused to stand. let take.
It could be the end on such a big stage for one of the game’s true greats. He seems destined to leave Europe and could now be finished in international football, and if so, he will walk out without having never scored a goal in the knockout stages of the World Cup. But there has been more than enough said and written about Ronaldo.
Even if Walid Cheddira saw red later, the public became the 11th Moroccan. Even when Zakaria Aboukhlal hit Costa directly, in a one-on-one in stoppage time, Morocco did not fold.
It was their day. It was Africa Day, Arab World Day. Nothing, not even Ronaldo, in tears as he headed down the tunnel, could change that.
“We want to show that Africa deserves to be here, Morocco deserves to be here, football is global,” Regargui said before the game.
“We have a federation behind us, a whole people behind us, a whole continent behind us. We have the Arab world.”
And the Arab world has Morocco. They face either England or France on Wednesday at Al Bayt Stadium, having already steeped themselves in football folklore, but more history awaits them.
They could just go out there and do it.