How Morocco's Sofyan Amrabat became a star during World Cup to remember

Verona midfielder's battle with France's Antoine Griezmann could decide outcome of semi-final on Wednesday

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A couple of months into his career in Italy’s Serie A, Sofyan Amrabat had already gained a reputation.

One day, it was put to Ivan Juric, his coach at Verona, the club who bought him from Bruges, that the then 23-year-old was so industrious, so seldom substituted, his diary so stacked with trips with Morocco across Africa, that he must be ready for a break.

“Give him a rest?” exclaimed Juric. “Sofyan would stay on the pitch until he passed out. And he’s that important to us.”

Amrabat’s stamina, self-sacrifice and vital responsibilities were, until about three weeks ago, the shared secret mainly of Italy’s top division, some clubs in the Netherlands and Belgium, and anybody who had studied the short period of Walid Regragui’s time managing Morocco. During this World Cup, Amrabat has made himself a star, coveted by Premier League heavyweights, considered the ideal anchor midfielder.

He is the motor of a Morocco side who on Wednesday night take on the World Cup holders, France, for a place in the final.

The opponents tamed by Ambrabat so far read like a who’s who of the game’s celebrated creators: Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard of Belgium; Pedri of Spain; Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva of Portugal.

Next up for the enforcer and on-field strategist of the Atlas Lions? France’s Antoine Griezmann, with whom Amrabat can one day compare notes when they reminisce about Qatar 2022’s various surprise storylines, and about what it takes to master new disciplines as a footballer and make service to the team your priority ahead of your flashier instincts.

Regragui, Morocco’s coach, namechecked Griezmann as a principal threat to the remarkable run of his team – one goal conceded in five games – because of his “excellence moving between the lines”.

Griezmann, a striker throughout his career and six goals shy of becoming Atletico Madrid’s all-time highest goalscorer, has reinvented his role at short notice for Les Bleus. He has made the territory at the front of midfield a platform for him being considered as player of the tournament.

Amrabat would be in the conversation for that award, too, and the duel to command their area of the pitch looks key to tonight’s semi-final.

Certainly, Regragui hopes to wake up on Wednesday without the same news he heard ahead of the quarter-final against Portugal, when Morocco’s physiotherapists reported they had been up until 3am working with Amrabat to soothe his acute back and muscle pain. “They asked if I was able to play,” Amrabat revealed after the 1-0 win. “I couldn’t let the team and the country down.”

He was needed all the more, given he had to protect a defence that, by the end of the quarter-final, was missing three members of Regragui’s first choice back four. By the time the final whistle had ushered Morocco into the World Cup’s last four, Amrabat had taken his total of ball recoveries to 41 in the tournament, more than any other player ahead of the semis.

Morocco v Portugal player ratings

Those marshalling qualities have been noted since – as his older brother Nordin, a former Morocco international, reports – Sofyan reshaped his game from attacking playmaker to a deeper midfielder. “His idols used to be Zidane and Iniesta,” Nordin Amrabat told L’Equipe, “then he started studying Yaya Toure and Thiago Motta.”

At Feyenoord and Bruges, two previous clubs, he would often be asked to combine vigilance with his sharp pace, to man-mark, in wide roles, quick opposition wingers or full-backs. At Fiorentina, who bought Amrabat from Verona two years ago, the coach in his first season there, Cesare Prandelli, praised his “unusual qualities, and his fantastic engine”.

When Regragui visited Florence to watch Amrabat in club action in September, he told him he wanted to build Morocco’s World Cup tactics around him. And that, as possession would be conceded to the opposition where necessary, that tireless engine would be thoroughly worked.

At about the same time, France manager Didier Deschamps was formulating a novel tactical switch for Griezmann. Midfield generals were suddenly vanishing from Les Bleus’ World Cup road map, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba long-term injured, and Deschamps reassessed the versatility of his most trusted outfield player.

He observed that Griezmann, who has moved back and forth between Atletico and Barcelona since he played his influential attacking role in the last World Cup, “changes position well, and when he finds himself in a midfield triangle, it’s no problem for him”.

In Qatar, France have found him adapting diligently to all points of that triangle. In a scenario few would have foreseen, they find Griezmann and Pogba’s stand-in, Adrien Rabiot, have so far made more tackles than any other Frenchman. Griezmann, operating behind the front three, also set up both goals in the 2-1 quarter-final win against England.

“Antoine has that mentality of great players, to be there when they’re needed,” purred Deschamps, echoing the thoughts of his Moroccan counterpart, Regragui, about the essential, inexhaustible Sofyan Amrabat.

Updated: December 14, 2022, 6:03 AM