“These are stupid choices; they are stupid boys who should have had a little patience… How can you be stupid enough to opt for Morocco when you are eligible for the Dutch team?”
Those are the words of Marco van Basten in May 2016 when the three-time Ballon d’Or winner, and then Holland assistant manager, could not have been clearer in his disapproval of promising Dutch-born playmaker Hakim Ziyech electing to represent the nation of his parents.
Of the 26-man Morocco squad that has taken this World Cup by storm, Ziyech is one of the 14 that are foreign-born, which is the highest number of any team at the tournament, while the manager Walid Regragui is French-born.
Van Basten, like many others in western European football, had become perfectly comfortable seeing less talented multi-national players representing their motherlands once their initial ‘dreams’ of a call up to their European ‘home’ had faded. But for Van Basten, Holland losing a genuine tug-of-war to a perceived lesser nation like Morocco was as unacceptable as it was confusing.
Two years later, Ziyech and a further four Dutch-born players represented a cosmopolitan Morocco side under Herve Renard at the 2018 World Cup for which the Netherlands had failed to even qualify. Even after this vindication for those who had opted for Morocco, a visibly annoyed Ziyech was still being asked about money being “paid to persuade players to choose Morocco instead of another country” by a Dutch reporter a year later.
What those in the Netherlands failed to understand - or at least underestimated - was the strength of feeling and enduring ‘Moroccanness’ felt by many of a five million strong diaspora across the globe.
Such scepticism has not been a strictly European phenomenon with sections of Morocco’s fervent domestic football fanbase also questioning the true motivations or desire of some of the children of diaspora – especially those who are perceived to have ‘hesitated’ when the first call up came.
Regragui, who was only appointed in August fresh from leading Casablanca’s Wydad AC to a Moroccan Botola and African Champions League double, could not have been more suited to the role of manager (and de facto statesperson) that awaited him.
The former Morocco international had a respectable playing career in France complemented by highly impressive managerial achievements grounded in Moroccan domestic football. Regragui won titles with unfancied FUS Rabat, and followed this by dethroning Xavi’s Al-Sadd to win the Qatar Stars League in 2020.
Regragui’s first diplomatic mission was his squad selection – this included the return of fan favourite Ziyech who had fallen out with the old regime - and striking the balance of selecting domestically developed to augment those based abroad.
A further source of pride for domestic Moroccan football is the key contributions of graduates from the Mohamed VI Academy - Morocco’s equivalent to Clairefontaine - in the form of Nayef Aguerd, Azzedine Ounahi and Youssef En-Nesyri.
Morocco have a chance to go where no Arab or African team has been before
Recent events in Qatar have served to unify the footballing cultures of domestic and diasporic Moroccan players and supporters alike, culminating in the Atlas Lions’ ongoing successes at the first Arab-hosted World Cup. Their performances have inspired immense joy and pride in millions of Moroccans, Arabs, Africans and Muslims the world over.
Moroccans have now embraced their foreign players more than ever, especially on the ground in Qatar where Morocco have benefitted from a home advantage feel with 15,000 Moroccans already living there prior to the tournament.
Regragui has harnessed the respective elements, and moulded a harmonious multi-lingual and multi-national squad sourced from 12 different leagues and seven different birth nations, with the contributions of all Moroccans on and off the pitch being recognised.
This is best demonstrated by the astounding fact that every single Moroccan victory at the tournament has come with a member of their starting 11 having been born in the opposition nation.
Selim Amallah of Standard Liege started against Belgium, with Belgian-born Ilias Chair and young prospects Bilal El Khannous and Anas Zaroury on the Morocco bench. Against Canada, Yashin Trophy-nominated goalkeeper Yassine Bounou of Sevilla started. And the culmination of these personal missions was the remarkable sight of Madrid-born PSG fullback Achraf Hakimi settling the last-16 penalty shootout with an audacious Panenka to eliminate Spain, the nation of his birth and a team for whom he would certainly be starting were it not for the motherland and the chance to represent Morocco.
This disparate, pioneering group of talented Moroccans have collectively taken the Qatar World Cup by storm, sparking scenes of celebration from Moroccans around the world, including vibrant scenes on Edgware Road in London, with King Mohamed VI even spotted in a Morocco jersey in Rabat.
As the quarter-finals get underway, it is worth remembering there are still Spanish, German, Belgian and Italian players involved in this World Cup. It is just that they are playing for Morocco - and now they have the opportunity to make history as a win over Portugal would take them where no Arab or African team has been before.