Morocco was drawn into a group that many labelled them underdogs in the 2022 World Cup.

The first opponent was Croatia, the runner-up of the 2018 World Cup. Then, Belgium, with its ‘golden generation,’ was a popular pick to advance out of the group. Finally, a hungry Canadian team that finished atop CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying made its first World Cup appearance in 36 years.

That tournament 36 years ago was a special one. Morocco finished as the winners of a group with three European teams: England, Poland and Portugal. Moreover, Morocco became the first African team to top a World Cup group. The Atlas Lions fell to a Lothar Matthäus goal in the 88th minute to exit the World Cup.

Fast forward to the present, and Morocco was the best-performing team in CAF qualification for the World Cup 2022. It won all six games played in the second stage. In doing so, Morocco scored 20 and conceded just one.

Managerial change

Then, just three months before the tournament, the team experienced a significant turning point. Morocco sacked head coach Vahid Halilhodzic. The Bosnian was notorious for his frosty relationships with a number of players. Hakim Ziyech did not feature for AFCON 2022. This angered both fans and the player, as Ziyech retired from international competition.

Walid Regragui stepped in as Halilhodzic’s replacement. Regragui helped Wydad AC to win the Botola Pro, Morocco’s top flight. Also, He led Wydad AC to its third CAF Champions League title. He is just the second Moroccan manager to win the African Champions League.

The return of Chelsea forward Hakim Ziyech from retirement helped to reduce tensions in the squad.

Morocco lights up World Cup 2022

Morocco’s main aim in the 2022 World Cup was to improve on the last tournament in 2018. In a group of Spain, Portugal and Iran, Morocco finished last in the group. However, it forced a draw out of Spain and only lost 1-0 to Portugal via a Cristiano Ronaldo goal.

Morocco’s campaign began with a goalless draw against Croatia. Prior to the game, most wrote off Morocco. However, the actual game leaned towards the African side. Aggressive pressing created eight goal attempts to Croatia’s six.

In matchday two, Morocco pulled off one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. It smashed European giants Belgium, 2-0. For the first time since 1998, Morocco won a World Cup game. Yet, this was far more impressive than a 3-0 win over Scotland in 1998.

With a 2-1 win over Canada in the last group stage game, Morocco clinched first place in Group F. For the first time in 36 years, Morocco was in the last 16 of the World Cup.

Knockout stage

The first opponent in the knockout stage was Spain. La Roja were the favorites, of course. Despite finishing runner-up to Japan in the group, Spain is always a tough opponent. Luis Enrique’s side dominated possession and created the majority of the chances. Still, that was not enough for the win.

After 120 minutes of neither team finding the net, the game went to penalties. Thanks to the heroics of Moroccan goalkeeper Bono, Morocco prevailed 3-0 on penalties as they advanced to the quarterfinals.

Another strong European opponent waited in the last eight. The Atlas Lions went up against Portugal. Even with the heroics of Cristiano Ronaldo on the sidelines, Portugal presented a different challenge from Spain. Morocco’s excellent positional discipline and a strong defensive line prevented Portugal from mounting many inventive threats. Morocco won the game thanks to a goal by Youssef En-Nesyri.

As a result, Morocco became the first African country to play in the World Cup semifinals.

According to the Moroccan Coach, their journey is the result of the hard work they have put in. Regragui says it is not simply a miracle.

“It is not about miracles, but about the hard work that we have gone through during our journey so far. The World Cup is wonderful for the players. I was hoping to participate in the tournament as a player , but fate gave me the opportunity to return as a coach to become the happiest person on the face of the earth. Earth, now we can dream of winning the World Cup,” coach Walid Regragui said.

History makers

Whatever happens now, Morocco has made history in this tournament by becoming the first African country to reach the World Cup semi-finals. Morocco knocked out two European footballing titans in the knockout phase, prompting manager Walid Regragui to refer to Morocco as the “Rocky of this World Cup.”

In the end, France was simply too much. Morocco got past the third-place team and the second-place team from 2018. The champions from four years ago had too much talent with their clinical finishing in the semifinal.

Regardless, Morocco can be the first team to finish on the proverbial podium at the World Cup from Africa. A feat deservedly earned after a grueling run to the final four of the tournament.

PHOTO: IMAGO / Agencia MexSport

Guide to World Cup 2022

Here are some resources to help you get the most out of the biggest event in soccer!
TV Schedule: All the info on where and when to watch every game
The Groups: We breakdown each group and all the teams
The Kits: Check out what every team will be wearing on the field this fall
Predictor: Play out every scenario with our World Cup Predictor
World Cup Bracket: Map out the entire tournament, from the groups to the final