Morocco’s improbable, history-making run at the World Cup is about to get its ultimate test.
Africa’s first World Cup semifinalist is playing defending champion France and its star striker Kylian Mbappé, the leader of a new wave of soccer superstars coming out of an era dominated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Wednesday’s match has cultural and political connotations — Morocco was under French rule from 1912-1956 — and the outcome is far from the foregone conclusion many would presume by looking at the names of the players and the rankings of the teams.
Morocco has exceeded all expectations in Qatar by beating second-ranked Belgium in the group stage and then eliminating European powerhouses Spain and Portugal in the knockout phase to reach the semifinals.
No African or Arab nation has ever gotten this far.
It is one of the biggest stories in the World Cup’s 92-year history and Morocco is not done yet.
“I was asked if we can win the World Cup and I said, Why not? We can dream, it doesn’t cost you anything to have dreams,'” said Walid Regragui, Morocco’s French-born coach.
“European countries are used to winning the World Cup and we have played top sides, we have not had an easy run. Anyone playing us is going to be afraid of us now.” Even France? The defending champions have just passed their own big test by coming through a tough quarterfinal match against England, on a rare occasion when Mbappé was kept quiet.
No player has scored more than his five goals and it won’t be easy for Mbappé to add to that tally against Morocco, which is yet to concede a goal to an opposition player at this World Cup — or indeed in its nine games since Regragui was hired in August. The only goal allowed was an own-goal by its defender, Nayef Aguerd, against Canada in the group stage.
Morocco might have some injuries now — Aguerd and fellow center back Romain Saiss could be missing on Wednesday — but Regragui’s game plan relies on team shape and discipline more than any specific individual.
France faces an extremely difficult task breaking down Morocco at Al Bayt Stadium, where French President Emmanuel Macron is set to be in attendance along with tens of thousands of green-and-red-clad Morocco fans. It will feel like a home game for Morocco’s players, which might level things up even more.
France starts as the big favourite, though, because of its star quality and experience. In Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann, a forward who has reinvented himself as a midfield playmaker at the World Cup, the team has two of the World Cup’s leading players while Olivier Giroud’s winner against England took him to four goals — the same as Messi.
They have attacking threats from everywhere and that intangible quality of just knowing how to get the job done. France centre back Raphael Varane said there will be no danger of complacency among his teammates in a game against the world’s No. 22-ranked team.
“We have enough experience in the team to not fall into that trap,” he said.
“We know Morocco isn’t here by chance. It is up to us, as experienced players, to make sure we are all prepared for another battle.”