Romain Saiss and Achraf Hakimi
Morocco’s Romain Saiss and Achraf Hakimi console each other after being eliminated from the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, following the defeat to France in the semifinal at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, 50km north of Doha, on December 14, 2022. France won 2-0. Image Credit: Reuters

The whistling stopped, the drums fell silent, and the flags hung limp as tears streamed down Moroccan faces at the Al Bayt Stadium. The atmosphere was almost funereal. The death of a dream hung heavy in the air. It was the end of a fairytale.

For over three weeks, Morocco carried the hopes and dreams of Arabs and Africans at the Qatar World Cup. They rode on the groundswell of support to the semifinal: the best by an Arab and African nation.

Under the Wednesday night sky in Al Khor, 50km away from the Qatari capital of Doha, the Moroccans kept running, turning and twisting, riding tackles and crossing balls into the French penalty box. The final shot never came. A goal never materialised. But reigning champions France scored twice against the best defence in the tournament.

Dreams died. A nation cried. The world shared the Moroccan grief. The Moroccan pride remained intact. There was no shame in the defeat. The Atlas Lions can walk with their heads held high: they have earned the admiration of people worldwide and the respect of their rivals. They are no longer the poor footballing cousins of Europe and Latin America, having beaten Belgium, Germany, Spain and Portugal.

“We are disappointed for the Moroccan people tonight: we wanted to keep the dream alive,” coach Walid Regragui said. “We wanted to rewrite the history books, and you can’t do that with a miracle; it takes hard work. We have given a good account of African football, and that mattered because we represent our country and our continent. People respected us before, and maybe they will respect us even more now. We have to do even better in the future,” Regragui added.

Morocco’s road ahead

True, Morocco will have to do better in future. They will have to live up to the lofty standards set in Qatar every time Morocco step onto a football field. Expectations can weigh teams down; that’s what Morocco must guard against. At the World Cup, they played freely, and every win was a cause for celebration since nobody gave them a chance.

That’s the past now. With the last four finish, Morocco have laid down the marker for African teams of the future. So whenever a World Cup comes around, every African team’s performance will be held up against the effervescent displays of the Moroccan team of 2022.

The semifinal finish is an incredible feat. The magnitude of the achievement can only be comprehended when you realise that no other African team have been there: Ghana’s quarterfinal run was the best. Morocco triumphed where Cameroon, Tunisia, Ghana and Senegal failed. That gives us a fair idea of the intensity of the competition, where European and Latin American teams thrive.

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“We went further than Brazil, Spain, Germany, all top sides, but we have to show that regularly if we want Morocco to be on the world footballing map. We might never be as good as Brazil, France, England, but I would like us to qualify for every World Cup. We have proven that Africans can go toe to toe with top teams. We need to work hard to show that it is no accident,” Regragui said, outlining Morocco’s challenge.

It’s back to the future for Morocco. A future where they will be under pressure to replicate the heroics of Qatar. The spectator support may not be the same, but the Atlas Lions will carry the confidence forged in this World Cup. Moroccans now know that they can beat the best. That will help cope with future challenges.

Heroes to a future generation

Romain Saiss, Azzedine Ounahi, Hakim Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi, Yassine Bounou, Youssef En-Neysri, Sofyan Amrabat and Sofiane Boufal have become household names in the Arab world. Their jerseys will be on the backs of kids kicking footballs in the streets and playgrounds of Arab and African countries. Stars will be born there. Some in Morocco too. They will keep the Moroccan flag flying.

Morocco needed a miracle on Wednesday (December 14). It didn’t happen. It could happen in future. The Atlas Lions have given us reason to hope.