On a warm June Wednesday in Mexico in 1986, the ‘Group of Sleep’ woke up. Locals had dubbed Group F at the 13th World Cup as doze-inducing because it seemed so dull. Its first four games had produced just two goals. Morocco, like England, had scored none of them, but still lurked in second place, jointly with Portugal, behind Poland.
Going into the last 90 minutes against the Portuguese, cautious Morocco spied a place in history, as the first African team to make the second phase of a World Cup. All they needed to guarantee progress was a victory.
It’s a scenario to be repeated, the bar now set even higher – a place in the last four.
If the main echoes, 36 years on, are clear, they also resonate through the details of then and now. Back in 1986, the Atlas Lions had come to their landmark moment, one celebrated across the Arabic-speaking world, by outsmarting a so-called traditional giant of the sport. And they had also stymied the bronze-medallists from the previous World Cup.
In 1986, the frustrated aristocrats were England, who had Ray Wilkins, sent off, and their gameplan scorned by the Moroccan midfielder Abdelkrim Merry as “from the Middle Ages.”
In 2022, in Al Rayyan, the humiliated heavyweights were Spain, a team also burdened by tactical dogmas, big on possession, but effectively tamed over 120 minutes of a tie settled on penalties by a Morocco who on Saturday can set a new standard for their continent and for the Mena region by reaching a World Cup semi-final.
More echoes: three and a half decades ago, Morocco’s cagey style during their qualification – a rearguard marshalled by their outstanding goalkeeper Ezzaki Badou conceded once in eight qualifiers – and in Group F received some criticism. To which Morocco’s Brazilian coach, Jose Farias had a simple reply: “We’d like to play beautiful football, but you can’t always do that, especially coming into a big tournament. You have to protect yourselves."
He added, pointedly: “If you want to see spectacular football, watch Hungary.” Hungary had lost 6-0 to the Soviet Union earlier in the tournament.
Fast forward to December 2022, and to listen to Walid Regragui, the coach who has made the 2022 Atlas Lions so hard to beat – just one goal conceded in six and half hours at this World Cup – is to hear something very similar. “In this sort of competition, you have to choose between the spectacular and achieving your objectives,” Regragui said ahead of containing the Spanish. “We have chosen: It is hard to get past us.”
Watching the final last-16 in Qatar, he might have nervously added that if you want spectacular, you can watch Switzerland. The Swiss lost 6-1 to Portugal while Moroccans were still celebrating their place in the quarter-finals on Tuesday.
The Portuguese must start as favourites at Al Thumama Stadium, but older Moroccans will recall that was also the case in 1986. Portugal had been European championship semi-finalists two summers earlier. They had a gifted young prodigy, 20-year-old Paulo Futre, in their attack.
Yet on the day, Morocco took off the handbrake and triumphed 3-1, topping the wide-awake Group of Sleep. They only missed out on the last eight when West Germany scored a 88th-minute free-kick for the only goal of Morocco’s last-16 tie.
For Futre then, read 21-year-old Goncalo Ramos now, fresh from his hat-trick against the Swiss, a stellar replacement for the dropped Cristiano Ronaldo in the Portugal starting XI and a challenge for a Morocco defence with injury doubts.
A benched Ronaldo, the likely scenario on Saturday, would at least remove one ghost from the past. In Russia four years ago, a Ronaldo header after four minutes, the only goal of the game, eliminated Morocco in only the second matchday of a tough group.
From that dispiriting exit to the soaring achievement at Qatar 2022 is a significant leap, but in the longer stretch of history, it is just another pathfinding step in the longer tale of Moroccan World Cup milestones.
Back in 1970, they were the first African nation to claim a World Cup point, drawing with Bulgaria in the first Mexico World Cup. They had led West Germany at half-time in their opening game, only to lose 2-1.
Romain Saiss, the captain of what is now the most successful Morocco team in any World Cup, has urged his colleagues to raise the bar again. “We want to make more history,” he said. “We want to go beyond the previous limits.”