DOHA, Qatar — Morocco’s unexpected, history-making run at the World Cup is about to put its final test.
Africa’s first World Cup semi-finalist plays with defending champions France, star forward Kylian Mbappé, who is leading a new wave of football superstars emerging from an era dominated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Wednesday’s match has cultural and political connotations – Morocco was under French rule from 1912-1956 – and the outcome is far from what many predicted from the player names and team standings.
Morocco exceeded all expectations in Qatar, beating second-placed Belgium in the group stage and then knocking out Europe’s strong centers Spain and Portugal in the qualifying stage to advance to the semi-finals.
No African or Arab nation has ever gone this far.
One of the greatest stories in the 92-year history of the World Cup, and Morocco’s work is not done yet.
“I was asked if we could win the World Cup and I was like, ‘Why not? Morocco’s French-born coach Walid Regragui said, ‘We can dream, it costs you nothing to dream.’ European countries are used to winning the World Cup and we we played in the top ranks, we did not have an easy run. Everyone who plays with us will now fear us.”
The reigning champions passed their own big test by going through a tough quarter-final match against England in the rare case where Mbappé remained silent.
No player has scored more than five goals and it won’t be easy for Mbappé to add to that tally against Morocco, who have yet to concede an opponent in this World Cup, or indeed in their nine games since Regragui. He was hired in August. The only goal allowed was defender Nayef Aguerd’s own goal against Canada in the group stage.
There may be some injuries in Morocco right now – Aguerd and his centre-back Romain Saiss may be missing on Wednesday – but Regragui’s game plan relies more on team shape and discipline than on any individual.
“We’re well-recovered. We have good doctors and we get good news every day. No one is excluded and no one is certain. We will use the best team possible,” Regragui told reporters on Tuesday.
The Moroccan coach said his team was ready to “change the mindset” of Africa and told his players not to settle for anything less than the grand prize.
“We will fight for African countries and the Arab world to continue on our way,” he said.
Regragui added that defender Achraf Hakimi is looking forward to a “nice duel” with Paris Saint-Germain teammate Mbappé, but that France is not just up to the star player.
“We should block Kylian but not just him. Hakimi is very keen to beat his friend,” he said.
He said that the key to winning the match at the Al Bayt Stadium, where French President Emmanuel Macron will be present with tens of thousands of green-reds, will be Morocco’s “team spirit” and the support of the audience. Moroccan fans will feel like it’s a home match for Moroccan players, which could raise things even higher.
“We have the best fans in the world, along with the Argentines and the Brazilians. They are people from all over the world to support their country,” Regragui said.
France starts out as a big favorite because of its stellar quality and experience. In Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann, a striker who reinvented himself as a midfield playmaker in the World Cup, the team had two of the World Cup’s leading players, while Olivier Giroud’s win against England led him to four goals – the same as Messi. .
They have threats attacking from everywhere and the abstract quality of knowing how to get the job done. France centre-back Raphael Varane said there would be no danger of complacency among his teammates in a game against the world’s 22nd ranked team.
We have enough experience in the team not to fall into this trap,” he said. “We know that Morocco is not here by chance. As veteran players, it’s up to us to make sure we’re all ready for a new battle.”
Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao contributed to this report from Doha.
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