(CNN) — After three hours of constant noise, the Estadio Ciudad de la Educación fell into library silence as Achraf Hakimi stepped onto the penalty spot.
Hakimi was born in Madrid and carried the weight of Africa and the Arab world on his shoulders, but you would never have guessed that the Paris Saint-Germain man would coolly spike the ball into the back of the net and spark riotous celebrations not only in the stadium , but also in Morocco and in the Moroccan diaspora.
It was a historic day for Morocco, for Africa, for the Arabs and for the Muslims. The Lions of the Atlas had roared to surprise Spain, world champions in 2010, and reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Qatar 2022. Coach Walid Regragui did not miss the importance of the occasion.
“Before, only the Moroccans supported us,” Regragui declared before the game against Spain. “Now it’s the Africans and the Arabs.”
For many, it was the surprise of the tournament, as the North Africans won their first World Cup knockout match. But how did Morocco reach the top eight in the most prestigious competition in world football?
The return of Morocco’s favorite son
Many eyebrows were raised when the Moroccan Federation made the decision to fire Vahid Halilhodžić in August, just over three months before the World Cup, after the Bosnian coach guided the team through the qualifying phase for Qatar 2022.
For the Moroccans, on the other hand, it was a change for the arrival of the heir to the Moroccan coaching throne, who took his place at the perfect time.
Affectionately nicknamed “Rass l’Avocat” (avocado head) for his bald spot, Regragui was a tough defender who, despite being born in France, chose to represent his family’s nation, making 45 caps for him.
Since becoming manager, Regragui has enjoyed success everywhere he’s been, leading mid-table Moroccan club FUS Rabat to the only league title in their history.
He spent a brief spell in Qatar, where he won the league with Al Duhail SC, before returning to Morocco, where he led Wydad Cassablanca to the league and Champions League double earlier this year.
It was a question of when, not if, he would take charge of the national team. Many Moroccans thought it could be after the World Cup or in a few years, but none were dissatisfied when it was announced that he would take charge of the national team less than 100 days before his first World Cup game.
In African football, Regragui has often been compared to José Mourinho, thanks to his tactical discipline and stellar people management skills. Both things have been present in the World Cup.
Morocco have played over 400 minutes of football in the tournament and have reached a penalty shootout, but the Atlas Lions have conceded only one goal, an unfortunate own goal against Canada in the team’s last match in Group F. .
After the dramatic victory on penalties against Spain, a video circulated on social networks in which Regragui was seen running towards the stands, hugging and kissing his mother, who was in the audience.
Regragui is a Moroccan born in France. He assembled the most nationally diverse team at the World Cup (14 of the 26 players were born outside of Morocco and come from six different countries) and seamlessly integrated this group of players from around the world into a cohesive unit.
World Cup tournaments can be difficult to cope with emotionally (players are away from home for weeks), but Regragui has countered that by allowing the players’ families to stay with the team at the Qatar camp.
Like the emotional video of Regragui hugging his mother, one of the most touching photos of the World Cup was that of Hakimi kissing his mother after Morocco’s victory against Spain.
Not only the players have been accompanied by their families. Regragui himself was filmed going to the stands to visit her mother, Fatima, who told Moroccan broadcaster Arriyadia how much she meant to her.
“During his entire career as a player and as a coach, I never traveled to see him,” said Fatima. “I have been living in France for more than 50 years and this is the first competition for which I have left Paris.”
A Federation that takes football seriously
The Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FMRF) must also be credited with the success of the Atlas Lions in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
After decades of soccer mediocrity, the FMRF – with the backing of King Mohammed VI – decided to reform the country’s soccer structure.
In 2009, the FMRF inaugurated its national football academy, the Mohamed VI Football Academy – which helped develop international players such as Nayef Aguerd and Youssef En-Nesryi – and tried to discover talent in the Moroccan diaspora by recruiting scouts from all over Europe. to locate all youth players who met the requirements in Europe.
The federation also began investing in women’s football, developing school and club football, and creating a national league structure. Funded by the FMRF, Morocco is currently the only country in the world to have two fully professional women’s football categories.
The jewel in the crown of Moroccan football investment is the Mohamed VI Football Complex, just outside of Rabat.
The training complex has four five-star hotels, eight FIFA-approved fields – one of them covered in an air-conditioned building – and a medical center that includes a dentist.
The investment of the last decade has begun to pay off.
For the first time in history, Moroccan clubs are champions of the men’s and women’s African Champions League, as well as the men’s Confederations Cup, the African Europa League.
Morocco is also the champion of the African Nations Championship – a continental tournament in which nations draw teams made up exclusively of players who play in the country – while the women’s team came second in the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year. year and qualified for his first World Cup.
Morocco’s World Cup success may be the tournament’s best story to date, but it is not the result of luck and grit, but rather skill and planning.