Morocco's players celebrate at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between Morocco and Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 6, 2022. (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP) (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images)
Long before sub-Saharan countries collectively asserted themselves as Africa’s dominant power at the Fifa World Cup, North African teams had played a pioneering role.
Egypt were the very first African country to appear at the World Cup, in 1934. Thirty-six years later, Morocco got Africa’s first point at the finals courtesy of a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria. The continent’s first win, though, came in 1978, when Tunisia beat Mexico 3-1; that milestone victory was masterminded by native Abdelmajid Chetali, the first African coach at the World Cup.
But it wasn’t until 1986 that Morocco became the first African team to qualify for the World Cup’s knockout stage, also the first to top a group. They went on to lose their Round of 16 game to West Germany, a late Lothar Matthaus goal ensuring their exit, but Morocco had left a serious crack in the glass ceiling.
Cameroon, at the next World Cup, would capitalise to shatter that ceiling, going a step further by reaching the quarter-finals — a feat matched later by Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) — and, before long, the North Africans had been pushed out of the picture, despite at least one team from the region featuring at every World Cup in that period; across two decades, from 1990 to 2010, not one of a trio that made a total of six appearances made it past the first round.
Algeria halted that poor run in 2014, before the Germans — would-be champions — pipped them in the Round of 16. Results at Russia 2018 reverted to type, with Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia all failing to advance, but one of those three — Morocco — has returned to cause quite a stir at Qatar 2022.
Morocco, rolling back the years with a performance reminiscent of what they produced in 1986, are absolutely flying. Under Walid Regragui, the head coach appointed only last August, Morocco have been reinvigorated and melded into a band of brothers driven by self-confidence and guided by unwavering belief in the trainer’s principles.
Those traits propelled the Atlas Lions to the top of Group F, ahead of Croatia and Belgium — two of the best three teams at the last World Cup — before seeing off Spain, the guys next door, on penalties last Tuesday, becoming only the first North African team to reach the World Cup’s last four.
That result also makes Regragui the first African coach to win a World Cup knockout game, and Saturday’s quarter-final match against the other Iberian giant, Portugal, offers him and his team the chance to break new ground for Africa; do just that, and Morocco would score another first.
It already is, should they even fail in that quest, a return to prominence for Morocco and for North Africa.
For 20 years, Morocco didn’t participate in a single World Cup, only finding their way back to the big stage in 2018, but amid what feels like a ‘golden age’ for Moroccan football — their teams currently hold titles in six major Caf competitions, including the men’s Champions League, won in May by Regragui’s Wydad — they’re now thriving.
They’ve always been, in more ways than one, Africa’s pacesetters at the World Cup. And now, with a team not short on quality and ambition, Morocco can blaze a fresh trail.