Morocco look to Achraf Hakimi for inspiration ahead of World Cup opener against Croatia

Hailed as 'best right-back in the world' by PSG teammate Mbappe, defender looks to repeat club success on international stage

Morocco's Achraf Hakimi during a training session in Doha ahead of the Qatar World Cup. AFP
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Kylian Mbappe regards him as “the best right-back in the world”. Erling Haaland rates him among the best teammates he has regularly thanked for goal-making passes. He has won a European Champions League alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. He has shared a league title with Lionel Messi.

So if you judge a footballer by the company he has kept, Achraf Hakimi, who on Wednesday embarks on his second World Cup as Morocco’s most coveted footballer, is uniquely blessed.

He has been an esteemed colleague of both the greats of the 21st century – he rose to Real Madrid’s first-team at the tail-end of Ronaldo’s time there; he is thriving at Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain – and of the two most feted forwards of the next generation. Hakimi helped create space and supplied crosses for Haaland at Borussia Dortmund. He does the same for Mbappe at PSG.

His haul of club medals is stacking up high and varied, too, stunningly so for a footballer who only turned 24 this month. Besides the European Cup and Club World Cup with Madrid, where he came through the academy, there’s a German Super Cup with Dortmund, a Serie A title with Inter Milan, and last season’s Ligue 1 title with PSG.

But it would be fair to report that, over the course of his 54 caps with Morocco, the trophies have been kept at far greater distance. Being so decorated at club level, Hakimi finds himself under extra pressure to elevate the Atlas Lions towards the sorts of podiums he and several of his compatriots know from their club careers in Europe and in Africa.

Morocco have failed to reach the semi-finals in each of the last three Africa Cup of Nations and took home just one point from the last World Cup.

Yet manager Walid Regragui will today pick a side to take on Croatia, finalists at Russia 2018, in which a pair of European Champions League winners, Hakimi and Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech should feature, while, most likely, also finding a place for his other star full-back, Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui, a Champions League semi-finalist with Ajax in 2019.

Hakim Ziyech has been recalled to the Morocco squad after falling out with prevous manager Vahid Halilhodzic. AFP

At the back and front of his preferred XI are Yassine Bounou and Youssef En-Nesyri, who won the 2019-20 Europa League with Sevilla and he can call on a trio of African Champions League holders – in Reda Tagnaouti, Yahya Attiatallah and Yahya Jabrane – who, under Regragui, won Africa’s biggest club prize with Wydad in June.

That the manager only switched, two months later, to coaching the national team means he has had limited time with the squad. But not least of Regragui’s successes has been reintegrating two of the club-level high-achievers after they were exiled under his predecessor.

Neither Mazraoui nor Ziyech had easy relationships with Vahid Halilhodzic, whose three-year tenure ended in August – Mazraoui had been absent from national consideration for almost two years, Ziyech for 12 months.

When Ziyech, short of game time at Chelsea, scored from within his own half in last week’s World Cup warm-up match against Georgia, expectation for what he might give Morocco on his comeback only heightened.

The late withdrawal, with injury, of Olympique Marseille’s Amine Harit from the World Cup plans puts added responsibility on creators such as Ziyech and the attacking full-backs.

Regragui’s short time on the training pitch with the squad means he must trust the seniors players’ best instincts. “I want an attacking mindset, and a possession-based game, although not excessively,” he declared on the eve of the tournament kick-off.

That means Hakimi galloping, as much as is wise, down his flank, and Mazraoui, a natural right-back who may be deployed on the opposite wing, advancing down his, and the width in turn opening space for Ziyech.

The challenge is to impose that forward-thinking, keep-ball game against a Croatia midfield that has few peers at this World Cup. Fitness permitting, Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic will remain loyal to the players who served him so well in Russia.

Ivan Rakitic has retired from internationals, but Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic, Tottenham Hotspur’s Ivan Perisic and the ageless Luka Modric are still key, while Marcelo Brozovic reports he has recovered from the thigh problem that kept him out of action through most of the last two months.

Nor will any of that quartet need fresh insight or warnings about the drive, energy, or precise passing and shooting of Hakimi.

He won his prizes at Madrid alongside Modric and Kovacic. He conquered Italy in the same Inter team as Perisic and Brozovic, and heard, from them, all the stories of how Croatia’s outsiders, ranked 20th by Fifa ahead of the 2018 World Cup, matched all the way to the final. Morocco, currently ranked 22nd, should take inspiration from that.

Updated: November 23, 2022, 2:28 AM