Morocco stunned the world on Saturday, knocking off Portugal to become the first African country to ever advance to the semifinals of the World Cup. Unlike some Cinderella stories who combine a lot of luck with opportunity, The Atlas Lions are simply out-witting and outworking their opponents on their path to history.
A sea of red is the backdrop for every Morocco match. Every one of their matches acts as a home fixture with tons of adoring fans dominating the aesthetics in Qatar. With what could be considered a homefield advantage thanks to the tremendously boisterous support, the underdog nation has toppled two European giants of the international game to reach the last four.
Many teams in the this situation would try to implement a defend-and-counter philosophy against the most talented sides at the World Cup. Morocco seems to have the perfect mix of talent, grittiness, and belief in their style of play.
First it was the originators of tiki-taka who fell victim to the spirit and fight off the Moroccans. Despite conceding 77% of the possession and witnessing Spain attempt 700 more passes than them on the night, Morocco withstood the onslaught and prevailed on penalty kicks to eliminate the 2010 champions.
Even after that triumph, few gave them a chance to get past the ultra-talented Portuguese side who obliterated Switzerland 6-1 in the Round of 16. Everyone knew what was coming. A conservative play style with an emphasis on defensive shape and counter-attacking. Yet, Fernando Santos’ Portugal had no answer. A late first half miscommunication in the back let Morocco get a goal and their resolute defending kept the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, and Cristiano Ronaldo off the scoresheet. Another masterclass in bending but not breaking led them to World Cup history and a date in the semifinals on Wednesday.
With just one goal conceded in five matches this tournament, this underdog story is beginning to make people believe.
While not a tiny country, with a population of around 37.3 million, Morocco boasts several recognizable names within world soccer. Their most high-profile player is Paris Saint-Germain fullback Achraf Hakimi whose transfermarkt.com value is €65m. That value accounts for 37% of Morocco’s total squad value of €241.10m. Of the eight teams that qualified for the quarterfinals, Morocco had the lowest overall market value with the next lowest being Croatia with €377.00m. Transfermarkt value is not the be-all-end-all when it comes to judging a team’s talent level but it’s a useful and unbiased tool to show when they stack up.
This tells us that while Morocco’s success may seem improbable, they have the talent to compete with any team in the tournament. Couple that talent with an undying commitment to a pragmatic style and it’s produced the story of the tournament thus far.
Most Cinderella stories in sports are fun while they last but eventually come to an end. Morocco’s journey will continue to be a difficult one as they will take on another European powerhouse in the semifinals with Croatia or Argentina waiting in the final should they get there. However, with their frustratingly great defense and threat on the counter, they are capable of beating any team they come up against. Anything is truly possible in a tournament like this when you have a successful pragmatic style of play capable of shutting down teams in the attacking end. They’ve set the bar for how we judge African teams at the World Cup. Now the question is just how high the mark will be when it’s all over.