The most successful national team in the history of World Cups have touched down in Tangiers. Yet when Brazil take on Morocco this weekend, it is the guests who find themselves aspiring to the status and the current football cachet of their hosts.
A Brazilian side much changed since they exited the last World Cup at the quarter-final stage are seeking a new identity and still looking for a new manager. Their opponents, semi-finalists in Qatar, meanwhile confidently chart a clear path upwards.
Saturday’s friendly, a prestigious fixture for Moroccan supporters to gather at and applaud the breakthrough achievement of three months ago, is the Atlas Lions’ first match since they narrowly lost the third-place play-off to Croatia in Al Rayyan in December.
It is an opportunity to set new goals and to put on display the dividends of becoming the first African – and first Mena – nation to have reached the last four of their sport’s most important event.
“It’s our ambition to keep the momentum,” said Walid Regragui, Morocco’s manager He is clear about the immediate targets: a successful Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast next year, and, more broadly, that the higher bar for Africa at World Cups should be maintained. Regragui believes a team from his continent can be world champions in the next “15 to 20 years”.
The impressive Regragui has been busy these last three months, planning for the Afcon qualifying campaign that resumes in June with a trip to South Africa, and travelling around European clubs persuading players from the large Moroccan diaspora who have choices about which national team to represent that the wiser option is the one offered by him.
To the 14 foreign-born players who did service at the World Cup for the France-born Regragui are added, to the squad to face Brazil and play Peru in Madrid on Tuesday, several younger footballers eyeing a long-term future of World Cups and Afcons.
Mallorca-born central defender Chadi Riad, 19 and at Barcelona, has been called up, as has 18-year-old France-born defender Ayoub Amraoui, who only made his first-team debut for his club, Nice, last month.
Senior Morocco debuts could, over the next five days, be handed to 21-year-old midfielders Benjamin Bouchouari (of Saint-Etienne) and Ibrahim Salah (Rennes), both also eligible for Belgium, and Yassine Kechta (Le Havre), 21, who has French and Moroccan nationality.
The case of playmaker Brahim Diaz – who at the tender age of 23 has won winners’ medals in the Premier League, while at Manchester City; La Liga, while at Real Madrid; and Serie A, with AC Milan, where he is on loan from Madrid – remains in limbo.
Diaz has Moroccan heritage and was born in Spain, who he has represented at various junior levels and in one senior friendly, which would not affect his eligibility for Morocco.
“He’s pausing to reflect between us and Spain,” Regragui said. “I went to Milan to meet Brahim, who has dual nationality, and we had an open, honest conversation. He loves Morocco but it will be his decision.”
The player has also been contacted by Luis de la Fuente, Spain’s new coach, who previously worked with Diaz in age-group teams, but explained he is taking time to decide on his international future. He is not in De la Fuente’s Spain squad for this week’s Euro 2024 qualifiers.
It is a tough choice, professionally, but recent form strengthens Regragui's arguments. Morocco beat Spain on penalties in Qatar. They then eliminated Portugal in the next round to make history, reaching a semi-final where they were defeated by France.
Morocco must now follow that up by correcting a modest record in the principal African tournament, says Regragui, who took over as coach last September.
“Performances at previous Africa Cup of Nations have not reflected the true level of our football,” he said, surveying a record that shows just one Afcon triumph, back in 1976, and only a single semi-final appearance at the biennial showpiece since the 1980s.
“Now we’ve reached a World Cup semi-final, the ambition is to be in the last four, at least, in every competition. There may be the odd stumble along the way, but the aim is to keep up this spirit we have.”
If one of those stumbles is against Brazil, who are under the caretaker management of Ramon Menezes while they look for a permanent successor to Tite, it will not derail Regragui’s plans.
But there is an obligation this weekend to present some of the energy, confidence and flair that characterised a magical month in Qatar to a home crowd – and for the new call-ups auditioning for a long-term part in Regragui’s plans to show their best.