Morocco and their fervent fans out to spring surprise on Spain in World Cup 'local derby'

Atlas Lions are confident they can continue their momentum to pull off last-16 upset

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Bono, the Morocco goalkeeper, described Tuesday's collision with Spain for a place in the last eight of the World Cup as “just like a derby”.

And Bono, real name Yassine Bounou, knows derbies. His adopted hometown, Seville, is home of one of football’s noisiest, most fiery local grudges, the Andalusian rivalry between his Sevilla and city rivals Real Betis.

Spain and Morocco, nations separated by a short stretch of water, and in some places simply by a high, fortified fence, anticipate today’s contest sounding like a neighbourhood derby but one in which one team are playing at home, for all the distance of the Education City stadium in Doha from Madrid or Rabat.

Five thousand extra tickets for Morocco fans, who have travelled in numbers to Qatar, have been released. With local Gulf support likely to sway in favour of the Atlas Lions, Spain fans may be outshouted by as much as eight voices to each one of theirs in the grandstands.

The neighbourliness will be felt vividly on the pitch and the touchline. The distance from Andalucia’s southern tip to Morocco’s northernmost harbour is barely 10 kilometres at the narrowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar while for the family of Walid Regragui, the coach plotting to take Morocco into the quarter-finals for a World Cup for the first time in their history, the Spanish frontier is merely a drive away.

Regragui, though born in France, grew up regarding his parents’ native Fnideq as his other home. It is very close to the enclave of Ceuta, one of two coastal territories on the African mainland governed by Spain.

Regragui played professionally in Spain’s Liga, with top-division Racing Santander in the mid 2000s, an experience that engendered a respect for what he regards as a distinct, faithful football style.

“I love that country’s football culture,” Regragui told reporters on Monday. “It’s been the same for 20 years and it’s brought great dividends. But we are also developing our game, and we’ll have to adapt our qualities to make problems for Spain.”

Belgium 0 Morocco 2 - player ratings

The template for that is easily available. Spain, who have lost and drawn since they opened their World Cup with a 7-0 thumping of Costa Rica, were nervously on the brink of elimination, for a few minutes, as they let go a lead and lost to a lively, hard-pressing Japan in their last group match.

They were also nervous of the same abrupt end to their campaign when, in the last minutes of the first phase of the 2018 World Cup, they were 2-1 down to Morocco, salvaging a draw with a stoppage-time, VAR-scrutinised equaliser.

Morocco’s second goal that night came from Youssef En-Nesyri, the striker who, with Bono, has since made Sevilla – Europa League winners in 2020, contenders until the penultimate match day for the 2021 Liga title – flag-bearers in European club football for Moroccan excellence.

As has Achraf Hakimi, the Moroccan footballer Spain wish they had persuaded to pursue a career under its flag. Hakimi, whose meteoric rise has, at the age of 24, already earned him trophies with Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Internazionale and Paris Saint-Germain, was born in Madrid, but resisted overtures from the nation of his birth, choosing to represent the country of his heritage.

A broad consensus has Hakimi as the best attacking right-back in the game, and his flank is a productive avenue for Regragui’s enterprising team, one made more potent since the head coach, only appointed in August, recalled Hakim Ziyech, of Chelsea, from his international exile following Ziyech’s falling-out with previous coach Vahid Halilihodzic.

A Ziyech pass, from the right wing, set up the second goal of the 2-0 defeat of Belgium that hoisted Morocco towards the top of their group. Ziyech then capitalised on En-Nesyri’s quick-witted pressing to give Morocco their early lead against Canada, En-Nesyri rifling home, from a Hakimi pass, the second in a 2-1 win.

Japan 2 Spain 1 - in pictures

Two wins on the trot: form and momentum are with Regragui’s men against a Spain whose head coach Luis Enrique turned irritable as he faced the media yesterday.

The loss to Japan, after a lead conceded in the draw against Germany, “represented just 10 minutes where we played badly in the 270 we have played so far,” he insisted of a campaign that has gone from a festival of fine finishing against Costa Rica to a steadily diminishing ratio of possession – the basis of Spain’s pass-and-move gameplan – to goals.

“The idea is always to dominate the ball,” said Luis Enrique. “And I stick by that idea. Spain will take risks, while others protect themselves and then attack at the end of games.”

It’s the same Spanish football culture Regragui had earlier been praising. It’s an approach that Morocco, at their confident best, with the loud backing of a partisan crowd, have the tools to overcome.

Updated: December 07, 2022, 10:27 AM