Morocco’s Strategic Plans for Developing Football is Starting to Pay Dividends in Recent Years
By Jaden Dakwa – LA Soccer Press
Morocco’s commitment to developing football in the nation has been steadfast. The nation’s win against Spain is not an example of an overnight success story, but rather one influenced through detailed development over a vast period of time.
Over the last two decades, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation or the (FRMF) focused on building a structure that is conducive to amplifying the potential of talent within the nation. There has been wide scale investment into the biggest sport in the world. In 2009, the Mohammed VI Football Academy was built to its completion. The project was spearheaded by King Mohammed VI who was ready to create a premier sports facility to facilitate the growth of Moroccan footballers, particularly of ages 13-18.
King Mohammed partially funded the investment for the academy in an effort to provide education and football training. His main objective was to “raise the ranking of national football to the top of African charts” and “compete at the international level”.
It is a project that cost $16.8 million to complete, according to Morocco.com.
In 2013, an on-site review report completed by Shahira Fahmy, noted that there were 81 residents at the academy and 70% of those residents came from poor families. The decision to include the majority of poor families is intentional and an indication that the academy is committed to providing opportunities for underprivileged youth.
One of the children who was a resident at that time was Youssef En-Nesyri, a talented 14- year-old beaming with potential.
En-Nesyri has since become the first Moroccan to score at two different World Cups, the 2018 and the 2022, respectively. His strike against Canada helped to secure a 2-1 victory for the Atlas Lions and a berth in the knockout stages. The level of emotion on his father’s face after he scored against Canada is palpable.
The forward from Fez, the second largest city in Morocco, started the Round of 16 matchup against Spain. Morocco’s staggering win against Spain has prompted wide scale celebrations throughout Casablanca. En-Nesyri’s prolific rise and his imposing presence on the squad are a reminder of King Mohammed VI’s objectives for his nation’s future.
King Mohammed’s arrival in the streets of Rabat on Tuesday night was met by huge crowds and adoration from the Moroccan public. These celebrations likely lasted into the wee hours of the next morning.
Amidst all the celebrations on Tuesday night, residents of Rabat, Casablanca, Fes, Tangier, and the rest of Morocco, fans are well aware of the team’s outside chance to win a World Cup. A place in the quarterfinals of the World Cup is admirable and proves the team has the ability to compete at the international level. Furthermore, Morocco has become the fourth African team to reach a quarterfinal at a World Cup. It is an achievement that puts this team in distinguished company and amongst the “top of African charts”.
The man currently leading the Atlas Lions, Walid Regragui, was appointed to become manager in September 2022, only three months before the World Cup. Regragui has likely taken note of the development of football in Morocco since his last appearance for the national team in 2009. His first task was an attempt to reintegrate one of the country’s biggest stars back into the national team. Hakim Ziyech was ostracized from the national team after a fallout with former manager Vahid Halilhodzic. The Chelsea winger retired from the national team back in February 2022 and vowed never to return.
Regragui immediately reached out and spoke with Ziyech. They were able to come to a resolution. Ziyech’s return was imminent. Regragui described it as a situation where Ziyech “couldn’t wait” to return to the squad.
It is a decision that has paid Morocco dividends. Ziyech has hit superb form during the tournament. A goal against Canada and an assist against Belgium were critical in the two wins the team picked up in the group stage. His creativity and playmaking were instrumental in creating opportunities for himself and other members of the team.
The 47-year-old has been working on making sure the environment feels welcome to foreign-born players who play for Morocco.
Sofyan Amrabat, Noussair Mazaroui, and Hakim Ziyech were all born in the Netherlands and have been key contributors to the Moroccan squad.
Amrabat has been a defensive presence in midfield and has played an influential role in breaking up opposition attacks. In the match against Spain, Amrabat won all four tackles he attempted and won seven of the ground duels he engaged in.
Mazraoui enjoyed a brilliant defensive performance against Spain as well. He had five clearances, won four out of the five ground duels he engaged in, and won three tackles.
Apparently, some members of the press have been critical and suggested perhaps halting the inclusion of foreign born players in Morocco’s squad to some degree.
“Sometimes people, including some of the journalists in this room, said “these guys don’t love Morocco, why not play with the guys born in Morocco?” Regragui said. “We showed the world that every Moroccan is Moroccan, when he comes with the national team he wants to die, wants to fight.”
Regragui seems intent on having all his players settled into the squad.
One of the key pieces of the foreign-born contingent and perhaps Morocco’s best player, Achraf Hakimi, has made huge contributions for this Moroccan team. Hakimi sealed the victory against Spain with a composed Panenka penalty to close out the match. The 24-year-old was born in Madrid, Spain to Moroccan parents. His mother was a cleaning lady and his father was a street vendor. They migrated to Spain and are part of the growing contingent of Moroccan immigrants in the country. The irony of fate that he would be at the PK spot to seal the destiny of Morocco and shatter Spain’s hopes of a win is fitting.
There could have easily been a scenario where Hakimi is wearing a Spain uniform on Tuesday evening. Which only serves to reinforce Regragui’s earlier sentiments that “every Moroccan is a Moroccan”.
Regragui’s leadership has been vital throughout the tournament. Their counter attacking style throughout the group stage produced positive results and cohesive performances. Defensively, Morocco usually organize themselves to restrict space in midfield positions to cut off passing lanes for opposition teams. When Morocco do receive possession, they tend to rely on their outside backs Hakimi and Mazraoui for width. This can put opposing teams in precarious situations during quick transitions and in normal build-up as they can create overloads in wide areas.
In the Round of 16 matchup against Spain, Morocco occupied a compact low block for most of the match. This tactic significantly frustrated Spain throughout 120 minutes of play. Youssef En-Nesyri man marked Sergio Busquets, who is the midfield orchestrator for Spain, and the rest of the team took up key positions in defense. The 4-1-4-1 shape provided organization to help plug in gaps throughout midfield and prevent Spanish midfielders from finding passing lanes in the middle of the pitch.
Regragui knew this defensive setup would be key to a possible victory.
“We are humble enough to say that we are not yet France, Germany, or England, to compete with them in terms of possession,” Regragui said. “Nobody managed to steal the ball from them, so I accepted not having the ball. I’m not a magician.”
Goalkeeper Yassine Bonou, who was born in Montreal, Canada, did not concede a goal during the penalty shootout. His three saves were crucial. Spain could have arguably taken some of their penalty kicks with more precision, however, Bonou’s skillful keeping abilities can not be underestimated. The 31-year-old often fakes his dive before penalty takers hit their attempt. Take a look at his penalty save against Sergio Busquets.
It is a well trained technique. His performances capped off with this shootout will likely find him garnering lots of interest from plenty of big clubs throughout Europe. He has already made a huge impression at La Liga giants, Sevilla. His performance could open the door to even bigger opportunities.
Other players could be subjected to widespread global interest as well. Sofyan Amrabat, who currently plays club football at Fiorentina, reportedly already met with Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp before the World Cup. According to Santi Aouna, Foot Mercato reporter, Liverpool is interested in resuming negotiations with Amrabat as they continue to seek midfield reinforcements.
Whenever this fairytale run for Morocco ends, manager Walid Regragui could also find himself the recipient of vast interest throughout the world of football. Regragui has only managed three clubs thus far in his career, the biggest of which would be Wydad AC, the Moroccan giants. He won the African Champions League for the third time in the club’s history.
There could be a host of elite clubs and national teams ready to make an offer to Regragui in an attempt to pry him away from Morocco.
The Moroccan FA may be scratching and clawing to hold onto Regragui after such thrilling performances in the World Cup.
Judging by the post-match celebrations, the players also appear to love playing under manager Walid Regragui, and the team spirit points to the cohesion within the federation.
Currently, Morocco’s main focus for players, coaches, and the federation will be the blockbuster showdown against Portugal on Saturday. A win would make Morocco the first African team to advance to the semi final of a World Cup.
It would be a crowning achievement that would finally cement the federation’s ability to compete on the biggest stage and possibly win a World Cup.
Photo courtesy of Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters.
Dakwa holds a BS in Journalism from Elon University. He writes about European football for L.A. Soccer Press. Follow him at @JDakwa on Twitter.