Putting the Atlas Lions on the map: Morocco aiming to ‘do a Greece’ at the World Cup
It may not quite be in the realms of Leicester City’s 5,000-1 Premier League triumph, but Morocco’s progress to the last four of this World Cup still represents a minor miracle.
In reaching the semi-finals, the Atlas Lions have gone further than any previous African or Arab nation on international football’s biggest stage.
Were they to overcome holders France tonight and then prevail in Sunday’s final, they would be defying odds of around 500-1, roughly on par with Emma Raducanu’s 2021 US Open win.
Morocco’s run has been built on a miserly defence and tireless running to close down opponents and maintain their unbeaten record.
They have conceded just once in their five games in Qatar – an own goal – and analysis after the group stage placed them fourth for average distance run per match.
But they are also home to world-class talents including Paris Saint-Germain full-back Achraf Hakimi, Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech, rising stars like Sevilla pair Yassine Bounou and Youssef En-Nesyri, and players who have made their mark on this tournament, such as midfielders Sofyan Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi.
The North African nation have benefited from better support than at any previous World Cup, thanks to Qatar’s proximity and the rallying of the Muslim community to their cause.
Their embracing of players’ families, who have been invited to Qatar at no cost and welcomed into the team base, is also credited with spurring the team on to unprecedented feats.
And then there is the investment: eight years ago, ministers pledged €135m to improving the pipeline of talent, including a new $65m national football centre, opened last year.
Morocco has a rich footballing tradition, with the men’s national team former African champions and set to celebrate their centenary in 2028.
They became the first African side to top their group at a World Cup in 1986, although this year is only the second time in six attempts that they have made the knockout rounds.
And they continue to aspire to stage the tournament, despite five failed attempts since the 1990s alone. Their bid for 2030 could be a joint effort with neighbouring Tunisia and Algeria.
In Qatar they have had to do things the hard way, first by winning a group that contained two semi-finalists from the last World Cup, Croatia and Belgium.
They then produced major upsets in the last 16 and quarter-finals, eliminating Spain on penalties after a goalless draw and beating Portugal 1-0.
Now they face their sternest challenge yet in reigning champions France, who took another step towards defending their title by breaking English hearts on Saturday.
A better reference point than Leicester’s 2016 heroes might be another major underdog story of international football: Euro 2004 winners Greece.
Otto Rehhagel’s outfit were also built on a foundation of sturdy defence and narrow wins and, like Morocco, held Spain and beat Portugal on their march to the final.
Those with an eye for an omen may recall they also knocked out the holders, who boasted a star-studded attack orchestrated by arguably the world’s best player. The team? France.