Morocco, the revelation and revolution of the 2022 World Cup, have conceded just ten shots on goal and just one goal in eight hours of tournament play, already on the verge of a semi-final in the history of the team and of Africa, for the first time present on their continent in the penultimate step towards the title, with a defensive solidity admired and unequalled since the Italy team that won the World Cup at Germany 2006.
Since then, no semi-finalists had ever got there with as few goals conceded as Morocco. Not the champions France at Russia 2018, nor the Germany that reigned supreme at Brazil 2014, nor the Spain that won the world title at South Africa 2010. In all of them, each of the four teams reached that stage with more goals conceded than the current Moroccan side, but so did each of the 32 competitors in those editions.
Not since Marcello Lippi's 2006 World Cup winners Italy, with goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, defenders Fabio Cannavaro, Marco Materazi and Gianluca Zambrotta, the midfielders Gennaro Gattuso or Mauro Camoranesi and the impressive technical qualities of Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro del Piero and Francesco Totti, or from the Portugal that was also a semi-finalist at that time, with the debut of Cristiano Ronaldo and with Luis Figo, Ricardo Carvalho, Tiago Mendes.
Since the World Cup adopted the current format, since Mexico 1986, only these two teams plus the finalists Germany in Japan and Korea 2002 with Oliver Khan as goalkeeper and Miroslav Klose as striker; the 1998 World Cup winners France with Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly and the Italy team that finished third in the 1990 World Cup on home soil with Walter Zenga, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Roberto Donadoni, with no goals conceded in the group stage, round of 16 or quarter-finals, had reached the semi-finals with only one goal conceded, as Morocco have now done.
"The 'Rocky Balboa' of this World Cup," as they were described by Walid Regragui, the invincible coach who has propelled Morocco to unthinkable heights in the two and a half months since he made his debut in a 2-0 win over Chile, They don't take as many punches as the famous boxer in the 1976 film saga, they protect themselves, they avoid them, they frustrate every opponent, who they give the ball to and lie in wait, not just to defend, but to play, to attack and to propose at breakneck speed. Fearless. With breathtaking determination.
Just one goal conceded in five games, 480 minutes or eight hours of play, counting extra time against Spain, enhanced by eliminating Luis Enrique Martínez's side, first in the Round of 16, then against Portugal in the quarter-finals, and before that against Croatia (the current world runners-up, now in the quarter-finals), Belgium and Canada, who were the best team in CONCACAF qualifying. That's three wins and two draws.
"It's not a miracle, it's the result of hard work," remarked the coach, constantly on the move off the bench throughout every game, in every order he gives his players, who respond perfectly on the pitch to the plan he has drawn up on the board, within a compact block, with the defence, midfield and forwards so close together that they hardly give any space to play between the lines of any opponent, no matter how hard Joao Félix or Bruno Fernandes might try for Portugal. Or Pedri and Gavi for Spain.
Morocco have not been the same against these two powers as they were in the first phase, which saw their only goal conceded, an own goal by Nayef Aguerd, one of their most regular centre-backs, who was out of action against Portugal due to injury. Also injured was his partner in the centre of defence in every game, Romain Saiss, who had a bandage on his thigh from the start of the match and could not hold on any longer in the 57th minute, when he was left on the ground, asked for a stretcher and left the field.
Possession always went to their opponents. It did so against Croatia (32 per cent), when they conceded just two shots, Belgium (32 per cent), when they put four shots between their own goalposts, and Canada (36 per cent), when they conceded their only goal through an own goal, without a single goal from their opponents in the entire match, but more emphatically, also because of the qualities of their opponents, when they crossed that stage into the knockout stages.
Against Spain and Portugal, Morocco's ball possession was identical: 22 per cent. That doesn't mean they gave up attacking. Nor to play. The African side is almost always committed to coming out from the back with the ball, with Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bono playing a decisive role, but with a full-speed, vertical transition, with hardly any pause.
Morocco wrote World Cup history as the first African and Arab country to reach the tournament’s semi-finals, continuing their surprise run in Qatar with a shock 1-0 victory over Portugal https://t.co/xk7CpTBD0J pic.twitter.com/tCFDHQwIhI— Reuters (@Reuters) December 11, 2022
In this way, he hurt Spain and Portugal, who were also given no room for imagination, always under pressure as soon as a pass went beyond the first line of resistance, always in a medium block (32 per cent against the Portuguese and 33 per cent against the Spaniards without possession) or low block (39 per cent against Spain and 34 per cent against Portugal). Above 60 per cent in both cases of the moments when the ball is in the opponent's possession and waiting for them in their own half.
The quarter-final against Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Félix and company had even more merit, because it came after three days' extra time against Spain and because of the number of players who were carrying niggles to put together their line-up.
?? Walid Regragui on Morocco's form in Qatar:— African Insider (@African_Insider) December 11, 2022
? "It's not a miracle. It's hard work!" pic.twitter.com/wqjrfzEoIv
Aguerd did not play and Saiss, their first-choice centre-backs, did not play, but neither were Sofyan Amrabat (he left the stadium with ice on his knee), Achraf Hakimi, Hakim Ziyech, Azzedine Ounahi, Youssef En Nesyri and Sofiane Boufal, all first-choice players to make history.
"All the players put in a fantastic performance, some were injured, some were tired, but everyone on the pitch gave their best. We've shown that we can take on any team in the world and create miracles," said Bono, the best player in the quarter-final against Portugal, as he was in the last 16 against Spain, amidst the worldwide amazement that Regragui's boys, unbeaten in seven matches under the coach, have awakened.