FIFA Men's World Cup
Morocco looks back at historic World Cup run with pride
FIFA Men's World Cup

Morocco looks back at historic World Cup run with pride

Updated Dec. 15, 2022 6:10 p.m. ET

AL KHOR, Qatar — For the last month, Moroccan fans made their presence felt at the World Cup. They wrapped themselves with flags in downtown cafés, waved them on the metro and carried them to stadiums that didn't even involve their team, sitting outside games like Portugal-Switzerland and Argentina-Croatia just so they could be part of the World Cup atmosphere.

On Wednesday, they knew their Cinderella story was coming to an end. 

As the final minutes of stoppage time ticked away in Morocco's 2-0 semifinal loss to France, throngs of red-and-green-clad fans cheered loudly at Al Bayt Stadium and sang "Ole, Ole, Ole," and gave their team a standing ovation.

France-Morocco highlights

France held off Morocco, 2-0, to advance to the World Cup final.

The Atlas Lions might not have reached the World Cup final — a farfetched dream from the beginning. But their story is one for the history books manager Walid Regragui has talked so much about. It’s a story that Moroccan kids will talk about when they answer questions in the future about how they got into soccer. It’s a story about a team that wasn’t playing for themselves, but for the entire continent of Africa.

ADVERTISEMENT

Morocco's run in Qatar isn't quite over — save for the third-place game against Croatia on Saturday (coverage starts at 9 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) — regardless of what happens in that contest, it has been a memorable journey.

"We’re disappointed for the Moroccan people tonight," said Regragui, a new national hero. "We wanted to keep the dream alive. Of course, we’re pleased with what we achieved, but we felt we could have gone even further. 

"I told my players I was proud. We made His Majesty proud. The Moroccan people are proud. We showed the values we wanted to show on the football pitch. We’ve given a good image of Morocco and African football. We represented our country and our continent. People already respected us, but maybe more so now. We went as far as we could, but we’ll have to do even better in the future."

At this World Cup, Morocco won its group, which included tying Croatia and beating Belgium. Then it beat Spain and Portugal in the knockout rounds before battling France in the semifinal.

In the second half especially, the Atlas Lions had chances, but Les Bleus defense was too strong and efficient, especially in the penalty box. It took Ibrahima Konate sliding on the goal line to save one potential goal, and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris diving to his right to get on the end of Jawad El Yamiq’s bicycle kick that would have been the goal of this World Cup had it gone in.

Jawad El Yamiq's bicycle kick almost goes in

Morocco's Jawad El Yamiq missed the goal of the World Cup by inches.

France set the tone early by scoring in the first five minutes. Antoine Griezmann, who was named player of the match, crossed the ball into the center of the box where Kylian Mbappé was waiting. The greatest player in the world right now took a shot, but it ricocheted off a Moroccan defender and bounced toward French defender Theo Hernandez, who was waiting at the backdoor to boom the ball past goalkeeper Yassine Bounou

This was the first goal Morocco has allowed by an opponent all tournament (they had an own goal in a 2-1 win over Canada during the group stage). 

Morocco had opportunities in the second half and the team’s intensity had everyone on the edge of their seats. But it could not finish a single chance.

Not to mention the Morrocans were fighting on without key nicked-up players. Defender Romain Saiss gutted through the Portugal match with an injury and still started against France, though he came off in the 21st minute. Regragui played a five-man defense so that Saiss, Morocco’s captain, wouldn’t have to run as much. The other star center back, Nayef Aguerd, missed the quarterfinal and didn’t play in the semifinal while recovering from the flu. And Noissair Mazraoui, also run down, came off at halftime.

France hung onto a 1-0 lead for most of the night. In the 79th minute, Mbappé weaved through Moroccan players in the box like they were cones and slipped a sweet pass to Randal Kolo Muani who finished in the far post. It was Kolo Muani’s first touch of the game, as he was substituted onto the pitch in the 78th minute.

"We did everything to get a goal, but we didn’t [score]," Regragui said. "In spite of all the injuries we had and tiredness, we pulled out all the stops and gave everything on the pitch. That’s quite an achievement. At a World Cup, this was perhaps one step too far. Not in terms of quality or tactics, but physically we came up short tonight. We had too many players that were 60-70% and have for a few games now. 

"Congratulations to France. We are going to support them now. Our players gave everything. They really wanted to rewrite the history books. But you can’t win a World Cup with miracles. You have to do it with hard work, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing. We’re going to keep working."

The impact of Morocco's World Cup run

Alexi Lalas, Clint Dempsey and Maurice Edu break down the lasting effect of Morocco's Cinderella World Cup run.

When the final whistle blew, devastated Moroccan players collapsed on the turf. Some lay on their backs, hands covering their faces. 

World-class defender Achraf Hakimi was consoled by Mbappé, his buddy and Paris Saint-Germain teammate, who he had the responsibility of marking all night. Mbappé, who will play in his second straight World Cup final at age 23, helped his friend stand up before the two swapped and put on each other’s jerseys.

Throughout this tournament, Regragui has described his team as "hungry" and "ambitious." French manager Didier Deschamps called them "organized" and "the best defense at this World Cup." There’s something to be said for that, considering Regragui, 47, became head coach two months before the World Cup began. 

An inexperienced national team manager, he was immediately loved by his players, reporters and faithful fans. He tried his best to make his mark and quickly did, infusing positivity into his locker room with talks of team spirit and family. He led the Atlas Lions to the semifinal, a stage no African team has ever reached.

Regragui, who was born outside of Paris, wrapped himself in a Moroccan flag after the match and waved to his friends, family and fans in the stands.

"They’ll be back," Regragui said of his team. "The top footballing nations always come back. In Africa, we need to show that regularly if we want Morocco to be on the world footballing map. We may never be as good as Brazil, France or England, but we want to qualify for every World Cup. 

"Then people will think it’s normal when Morocco reaches this stage in the World Cup. We’ve achieved a lot because we’ve shown Africans we are capable of going toe to toe with top sides."

It takes a lot to hold your own and challenge a proven winner like France, the defending World Cup champions, in a stage of the tournament that they’ve experienced before. While there’s disappointment for Morocco now, the Atlas Lions did what they set out to do. 

They changed hearts and minds, made history and brought pride and joy to the African and Arab world.

Read more from the World Cup:

Top stories from FOX Sports:

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of "Strong Like a Woman," published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

share


Get more from FIFA Men's World Cup Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more