Morocco seek to be ‘remembered as heroes’ by eclipsing class of 1986

<span>Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

For Morocco’s squad and most of the estimated 45,000 fans following them in Qatar, 1986 is not even a distant memory. Even the coach, Walid Regragui, was only 10 when Mohamed Timoumi, Abdelkrim Merry and the goalkeeper-captain Badou Zaki inspired the Atlas Lions to become the first African side to reach the knockout stages of a World Cup courtesy of a 3-1 win against Portugal. “No one expected us to beat them,” the defender Noureddine Bouyahyaoui said recently.

The success of 36 years ago could be about to repeat itself, with Morocco needing a point against Canada on Thursday to guarantee a place in the last 16 after their win against Belgium. Regragui’s side have not conceded a goal in six matches since he took over in August, in echoes of the 1986 team.

That side had qualified for the tournament in Mexico after letting in one goal in eight matches and began with another two clean sheets against England and Poland. Then came their best performance in the final group-stage match.

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Facing a Portugal side who had reached the semi-finals of the European Championship two year earlier, two goals from Abderrazak Khairi had José Faria’s team 2-0 up at the break before Merry made sure that they topped the group. “Lots of people expected us to lose and lots of people lost on the lottery,” said the Brazilian coach. “We could go home now. It’s as if we’ve won the world championship already.”

A Lothar Matthäus goal for West Germany from a free-kick in the 87th minute of a gruelling second-round match eventually ended Morocco’s participation in Mexico and it has not escaped anyone’s notice in the north African nation that they could be on course to meet Germany again at this tournament should the stars align.

Related: Courtois mistake and Aboukhlal help intrepid Morocco shock Belgium

“The 1986 team remains the best in the history of Morocco,” says the Moroccan pundit Jalal Bounouar. “Any achievement like this will make the fans remember the names of the players because it is not that easy for African teams to compete with European and Latin American teams. There is this comparison with Mexico because there is a general feeling that we can qualify. We can see that the players and the coach are playing high-level tactical football. There is also a winning spirit – it is rare to see this in the national team.”

Regragui – a former defender who won 45 caps – succeeded the veteran Vahid Halilhodzic after excelling in club management and has galvanised his squad into a formidable defensive unit that is, in his words, “very difficult” to beat. But it has been the return of three key players – Noussair Mazraoui, Abderrazak Hamdallah and the playmaker Hakim Ziyech – from the international wilderness that has helped lift Morocco to the next level.

Regragui said of Chelsea’s Ziyech on Wednesday: “A lot of people talk about him, about he is a crazy guy, he is a difficult guy to manage, he can’t help the team. For me, what I say, when you give him the love, the confidence, he can die for you. And it’s what I give him … he is a big player, playing on a big team in Europe and you see he is a different player with the national team. All of the coaches give him the confidence, the same with the staff.”

According to Abdellah Aarab, who owns the Moroccan football website almarssadpro.com, Ziyech is not the only player to have benefited from Regragui’s approach. “The biggest thing the coach has done is motivate the whole squad,” he says. Bounouar adds: “His ability to communicate and the positive atmosphere he creates within the team have given him the respect of fans and players themselves, including the superstars.”

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Before a game at the Al Thumama stadium that is expected to be dominated by Morocco fans as they anticipate another historic moment, Regragui condemned riots that broke out in Belgium and the Netherlands after Morocco’s win over Belgium.

“It’s very difficult to see that – you need to respect the country where you are born and live,” he said. “But I think it’s not Moroccan people. Moroccan people have more respect and in our culture you have to respect everybody. You can be happy, do your party but you have to respect everybody and I don’t like what has happened. I hope after Canada the Moroccan people enjoy but only to dance and to cry about what happens on the pitch and be respectful.”

Should Morocco follow in the footsteps of Faria’s side and book a place in the last 16, there will be plenty of reasons to celebrate. “If we do it, I think they will be remembered as heroes just as we do with the 1986 team,” says Aarab. “That will be a great achievement.”