The World Cup quarter-final stage kicks off on Friday with some of the world’s football powerhouses booking their place in the last eight and the only African representative Morocco the one surprise package.
The Atlas Lions produced a spirited performance for 120 minutes before Yasin Bono’s heroics in the penalty shootout saw Morocco dump European giants out of the 2022 FIFA World cup in Qatar.
IOL Sports Smiso Msomi provides four reasons why Morocco are emerging as World Cup dark horses:
Understanding of opponent’s strengths and weaknesses
Morocco have drawn against Croatia, beaten Belgium and Canada, and outlasted Spain in their World Cup journey so far and their positive results have been down to a high-quality understanding of their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
The Atlas Lions matched the physicality of Croatia and countered the speed and offensive play of Belgium and Canada with sheer aggression and endurance, while a world-class lesson of ‘patience in defence’ was enough to see off a Spanish side that usually overcomes teams with their passing game.
The North Africans have displayed a great deal of versatility throughout the tournament, adjusting to the direct needs of each contest.
European-based players’ influence
Achraf Hakimi was born in Spain and now dons the colours of Paris Saint-Germain, Sofiane Boufal, who has come up with bright moments, hails from France and plays for Angers in the French Ligue 1 while Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech was born in the Netherlands.
Those three key figures of the current squad are among 14 players scattered around Europe for their respective clubs.
The undeniable higher level of quality in these aforementioned leagues allows Morocco to not only conquer the continent but also keep up with global standards and they have proven that in this tournament.
State-of-the-art long-term investment
In 2020, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation announced its plans to build a state-of-the-art football stadium worth upwards of R180 million.
The idea behind this was to “represent a great achievement in Morocco’s efforts to develop and modernise sports infrastructure in the country”.
Morocco are also the CAF Champions League champs, Confed cup champs and CAF Women’s Champions League champs.
It is through such initiatives made over the years that Morocco now runs the continental club scene which in turn strengthens the national team.
The Ziyech effect
For Morocco, major decisions had to be made ahead of their participation in the global spectacle and one of them was either to recall a retired Hakim Ziyech or not.
The 29-year-old was involved in a huge falling out with the previous manager Vahid Halilhodžić, leaving the current man in charge Walid Regragui in somewhat of a predicament.
The fiery Regragui made the bold move and has reaped the rewards in this World Cup with Ziyech being one of his most influential figures on and off the field.