It has been some World Cup for the African nations.
Four years ago in Russia, all five nations hailing from the continent were eliminated in the group stages, accumulating eight points collectively, but in Qatar there has been a wonderful resurgence in this World Cup of shocks.
Cameroon fell spectacularly short despite shocking five-time champions Brazil in the final act of the group stages.
Morocco contributed seven points alone to the 24 in total in the group stages this time around, featuring in the knockout stages of the World Cup for only a second time, also reaching the round of 16 in 1986, losing 1-0 to Germany that year.
They face Spain on Tuesday in their second ever World Cup meeting to compete for a place in the quarter-finals – in the first, in the 2018 group stages, Morocco twice took the lead before drawing 2-2, with Iago Aspas scoring a last-minute Spain equaliser.
Ahead of their latest battle, Sky Sports’ Ben Grounds spoke to award-winning African football journalist Usher Komugisha to discuss the chances of Morocco heading into the round of 16….
‘Morocco’s success is not coming from the sky’
“What we’ve seen for the first time at this World Cup are five African teams with five African coaches. It’s a historic moment. In the case of Walid Regragui, he is a former Morocco international. He understands the culture of the country and he knows what it takes to win.
“He’s not been with these players for a very long time having only been appointed in August – only three or four months ago. That as when the club season in Europe was starting so he’s had a handful of friendlies to work with the players.
“The key thing he did after his appointment was he brought Hakim Ziyech in from the cold. Ziyech had fallen out with Halilhodzic and didn’t even play at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Ziyech key to Morocco’s hopes
Hakim Ziyech scored his first World Cup goal in Morocco’s 2-1 win over Canada. He’s also played the most passes into the box (17) and created the most chances (7) of any Morocco player at this World Cup.
He’s also had the most ball carries (43), carried the ball the furthest distance (477.6m) and had the most take-ons following a ball carry (9) of any Morocco player.
“When Regragui was appointed, he told the player he was central to his plans, and this has been key to helping Morocco at the World Cup. He is their talisman but it’s a team that is very dynamic.
“They’re not just relying on him. They have Youssef En-Nesyri up front, who is the first Moroccan player to score in two different World Cups.
“What we are seeing with Morocco is reward for investing in facilities. It’s a big problem still in Africa where Federations don’t understand there needs to be pitches and academies, coaches and modern facilities.
“Morocco’s success is not coming from the sky. It is intentional. They have built the Mohammed VI Complex in Maamoura covering almost 30 hectares with an overall investment of $65.4m (£54m) built over a period of three years.
“This is being used by all the national teams of all age groups. The thought process behind it is that if they have the likes of Hakimi and Ziyech coming from PSG and Chelsea, they need to feel at home when they come to train for the national team.
“The facilities have to be the same, if not better. There has been a shift in mentality. This cuts across every sphere as Regragui won the CAF Champions League with Wydad AC in Casablanca in May. He is a good man-manager.
“Against Canada, when the game ended, the players lifted him up in the air and there is such a good vibe which we didn’t see under Vahid Halilhodzic.
“When you consider the World Cup in its entire history, no foreign coach has won it with a nation since its inception in 1930. Having someone who understands the culture of the country – in the cases of the five African nations – it has made a huge difference.”
Organisation behind Moroccan success
“At the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, Morocco were eliminated by Egypt in a game where they were ultimately bullied. Their mentality was questioned.
“Morocco have the better players across the two teams, but at the time it was seen as a mental block. There was a fear there, in the same way Spain had to overcome in 2010. The quality was not disputed, but there was a fear.
“The key change since then is that Morocco have changed their manager. Halilhodzic was in charge at AFCON but he was very conservative in his approach despite having many attacking players.
Did you know?
Morocco are unbeaten in their last four matches at the World Cup (W2 D2). The only African team to go five consecutive World Cup games without defeat are Cameroon (W2 D3 between 1982 and 1990).
“We were not seeing the fluidity that we’re seeing now. The Moroccan federation took a very tough decision to fire Halilhodzic as recently as August.
“The president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, Fouzi Lekjaa, was under immense pressure after a 3-0 friendly defeat to USA. They played so badly and so something had to change.
“I was at Morocco’s win over Canada and it was so lit. If you look at their players, they are in the last 16 on merit.
“Yassine Bounou is the No 1 goalkeeper for Sevilla, and he was voted as the best goalkeeper in La Liga. Until Canada’s goal, which was actually an own goal by Nayef Aguerd – Morocco hadn’t conceded under their new coach Regragui.
“Defensively they are very organised and solid. It is very difficult to score against Morocco.
“They have players like Achraf Hakimi, so it’s not just about the skill and the talent. It’s about the mentality that comes with having a Paris Saint-Germain player in the team.
“I don’t need to say much about Hakim Ziyech but it is true he has not had much playing time in the Premier League this season at Chelsea. But Ziyech is a world-class player.
“If you believe in him and if you give him an opportunity, he will deliver. He is the same to Morocco as Riyad Mahrez is to Algeria. He is often on the bench for Man City, but when he comes on he can change the game.
“Abdelhamid Sabiri [who now plays for Sampdoria] grew up in Germany and actually played for their under-21s. That sort of early exposure in the Bundesliga is now coming in very handy.
“Morocco is one of those countries that have so many players who were actually born in Europe. They’re very exposed from a very young age to high facilities and a different mentality.
“Morocco as a country right now has invested so much in infrastructure, manpower and coaching staff. A FIFA delegate was telling me that he found Morocco to be the most organised African team at the World Cup, so the results haven’t surprised me.”
‘Morocco are playing at home’
“Morocco are an Arab team so playing at Qatar means they’re at home. They played here in the Arab Cup last December with just locally-based players and reached the semi-finals.
“Even though there wasn’t a player in that squad who is part of this group, it highlights the point that they feel at home.
“You have to consider then that there are so many Moroccans who live in Qatar and the King of Morocco Mohammed VI set aside two planes and subsidised the price for tickets so fans could come and watch the tournament.
“If you enter the stadium during Morocco’s group games, the atmosphere has been like home matches. You can put the Moroccan fans at this World Cup alongside Argentina and Mexico.
“Their support has been intense and that has really helped the team.”
Morocco’s ‘avocado head’ plots another World Cup shock
Sky Sports’ Ben Grounds:
After Morocco had beaten Canada 2-1 to reach the last 16 for only the second time and first since 1986, FIFA posted a photo of coach Walid Regragui holding an avocado with a football inside it and pointing his finger at his head in a defiant message to his critics.
The goal they conceded to Canada was their first in six matches under Regragui and during the victory celebrations, the players gathered around the coach touching his head.
“They like to hit me on the head. Perhaps this will be lucky omen for them,” Regragui told reporters.
Morocco are happy to sit back and look to punish opponents on the counter-attack using the speed and skill of Ziyech.
The Atlas Lions started the finals with a goalless draw against Croatia before a convincing 2-0 victory over Belgium, a win achieved despite the absence of goalkeeper Bounou who pulled out due to illness just before kick-off.
In the first half against Costa Rica, Spain’s 537 successful passes set a World Cup record but they will need to show more cutting edge to stay on course for a second world title.
Rodri: Spain cannot repeat mistakes from Japan collapse
Spain have learned lessons from the 2-1 loss to Japan that threatened to knock them out of the World Cup and are aware they cannot afford to make the same mistakes against Morocco, Rodri Hernandez said on Sunday.
Spain’s 2-1 loss to Japan in the final group game after the Asian side scored two quick-fire goals dropped them to second in the group, and there was a three-minute period when they were third after Costa Rica took the lead against Germany.
Ultimately, Germany did Spain a favour by beating Costa Rica but Rodri admitted those three difficult minutes unnecessarily complicated their own match before they sealed progress to the last 16.
“Now a new competition is beginning. There is always analysis on what we can improve on, even after the games when we’ve played well,” Rodri told reporters ahead of Tuesday’s game.
“The other day there weren’t that many things to improve on because it was a 10-minute collapse and this is what we have to do better. We’ve been warned that this cannot happen again.
“The coach has been clear, the players have assumed responsibility and we’re training happily, wanting to be in the next round and knowing that we can get there.”
Morocco are in the last 16 for the first time in 36 years and though Rodri said they would be tough opponents, particularly Ziyech.
“They have very good quality players and they work very well in a collective way, it will be a very tough and very even match. They knocked out Belgium. We should have a good day to beat them,” he said.
“(Ziyech) is a great player, he’s playing very well… Very dangerous when he shoots. But I think Morocco have great players, not just Ziyech.”
Who plays who in the last 16?
Saturday December 3
Sunday December 4
Monday December 5
- Japan vs Croatia – Kick-off 3pm
- Brazil vs South Korea – Kick-off 7pm
Tuesday December 6
- Morocco vs Spain – Kick-off 3pm
- Portugal vs Switzerland – Kick-off 7pm