Morocco's run to World Cup knockouts is no fluke; the secret is team spirit

Marcotti: Morocco aren't a pushover for Spain (1:50)

ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti defends Morocco after Spain finish 2nd in their group and face them in the round of 16. (1:50)

DOHA, Qatar -- The Souq Waqif has been packed with people throughout this entire World Cup. If you amble down the main concourse of the marketplace at whatever speed the dense crowd allows, you encounter team shirts from all over the world. It's hectic. Whenever there's a TV journalist reporting back to a studio, groups of fans form their backdrop, all filming the moment for themselves as well. After matches, fans head to the souq to party, singing their country's anthems late into the night.

But although you're likely to see plenty of Argentina and Brazil shirts, arguably the most plentiful color -- especially on their matchdays -- is the red of Morocco.

The Atlas Lions' matches have been an incredible, vibrant, claustrophobic experience in Qatar's stadiums so far. The noise is the sort that rattles through you; the sounds of "Allez Maghreb" beat inside your head; the players thrive off it, while opponents seemingly struggle to communicate through the din.

Group F saw Morocco draw 0-0 with 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia, stun group favourites Belgium 2-0 and then get past Canada 2-1 to book a place in the knockouts for only the second time in their history -- the "immortal" 1986 team finished top of a group containing England, Portugal and Poland, but lost 1-0 to West Germany in the round of 16. In a news conference after the Canada match, Morocco manager Walid Regragui was in animated form and overflowing with pride. Sitting next to right-back Achraf Hakimi, who has arguably been the best player in that position at the World Cup, Regragui didn't miss a beat when asked whether Morocco could win the whole tournament.

"We set ourselves an objective to give everything we have and get out of the group stages," he said. "After that, why not? Aim for the sky. We need to change our mentality and we will be a difficult team to beat. Why not dream about winning that trophy? As African teams, we need to set this objective."

As the sole Arab representatives left in the World Cup (68% in the African country identify as Arab), they will have a massive amount of support on the ground when they face Spain on Tuesday in the round of 16. But their run to the knockout stages is not a Hollywood fairy tale, nor is it a fluke.

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The Regragui factor

When Morocco eased through their African World Cup qualification campaign, they had 70-year-old Bosnian manager Vahid Halilhodzic in charge. They conceded three goals in total -- two of which came in a 5-2 aggregate win over DR Congo in the final knockout round -- and were defensively solid but not necessarily an exciting team.

Meanwhile, there was turmoil behind the scenes as two of the country's star players, Chelsea's Hakim Ziyech and then-Ajax defender Noussair Mazraoui, refused to play for Halilhodzic.

Mazraoui explained his reasons on the YouTube show of former Netherlands international Andy van der Meyde, claiming that having had issues getting to a Morocco training camp amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he turned up to one session four days late. Due to the heat, the players were stopping every five minutes for water, but Mazraoui had had enough rehydrating and didn't take on one of the bottles of water. Halilhodzic -- according to Mazraoui -- lost his temper and threw a bottle at him. The pair's relationship deteriorated from there, and Mazrouai would not play for Morocco from mid-November 2020 through to September 2022.

Meanwhile, Ziyech announced his international retirement after he was left out of the squad for the Africa Cup of Nations. Ziyech and Halilhodzic had fallen out the previous summer when the winger had made himself unavailable for a friendly. Despite Ziyech's talent, Halilhodzic considered him a disruptive influence, and Ziyech insisted he'd never return while Halilhodzic was manager. Morocco fell 2-1 in the Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals to Egypt -- after a goal from Trézéguet in extra time -- and on Aug. 12, just three months before the 2022 World Cup, Halilhodzic was sacked.

Morocco FA (FRMF) boss Faouzi Lekjaa later revealed it was down to his treatment of the players.

"[The players and the public] did not understand the reason for excluding players who participated with the national team for six or seven years, depriving them of representing the national team for this round," Lekjaa told Spanish outlet EFE.

"There was also a neglect in enhancing the players' association with their technical team and motivating them to give their best, which is any coach's primary purpose. This generated a feeling of indifference. In a brotherly atmosphere, it was necessary to explain to Vahid that Moroccans are getting tired of his approach. It was necessary for everyone to go their own way with their heads held high in this period of important victories. The national team cannot exclude high-level Moroccan players who play in teams all over the world, whatever the reason -- that was how the fans and players felt."

Regragui was announced as Halilhodzic's successor on Aug. 31, having won the African Champions League title with Moroccan club Wydad Casablanca in May. The 47-year-old's first assignment was calling Ziyech, who instantly reversed his international retirement, and Mazraoui soon followed him back into the fold.

"A lot of people say that Ziyech is difficult to deal with, as if he is a problem child," Regragui said after the World Cup win against Belgium. "But if you give him love and confidence, he is prepared to die for you. I give him that, and he pays me back on the pitch."

Regragui is in many ways the perfect coach for this group of players. He made 45 appearances for Morocco and was part of the 2004 team that reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, where they eventually lost 2-1 to hosts Tunisia. He has a proven track record as manager, too; in addition to winning the Moroccan league and African Champions League last summer with Wydad, he also won the Qatari league with Al-Duhail SC.

In the past, Morocco have had coaches from Belgium and Brazil; they've also gone down the homegrown route. But Regragui is slightly different. Hailing from France, he is the first European-born Moroccan to be a head coach of the national team. He's someone who knows the Moroccan culture and how to interact with the players; he speaks the language and wants his team to be excited. Tactically, he also made an important change from a defensive 5-3-2 to a more attacking 4-3-3.

"They have a very good coach," Nordin Amrabat, the 64-cap Morocco international and older brother to midfielder Sofyan, tells ESPN. "He lets them play well-organised football. I also hear that the coach prepares the squad very well and in a professional manner. He also excites the players for every game and gets them pumped up. They enter the pitch with a mentality of 'we are not afraid.'

"They play as a unit and are very patient. In the past, we were very impatient as we wanted to score quickly and when we didn't, we would take even more risk and give more space to opponents. That's a big difference with how we play now."

The perfect mix

Morocco are one of the most diverse teams at the World Cup, with players born in Canada, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. Each had a different football upbringing, and they offer varying experiences. The FRMF had stepped up its recruitment drive over the past decade to seek out more qualified players and persuade them to play for Morocco. Before that, the focus was on players who could play in the first team, but that has now extended to the youth teams.

Despite the language barrier -- not every player speaks Arabic or French -- they have been united by Regragui and the team's collective goal in Qatar.

Sofyan Amrabat, the 26-year-old Fiorentina midfielder who has been a standout player in Qatar, chose Morocco at a young age over the Netherlands despite the Dutch giving him the full charm offensive at the time. He played for Morocco at the Under-17 World Cup tournament in 2013, where Morocco won their group only to be eliminated in the round of 16 by Ivory Coast.

Goalkeeper Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti was part of that team too. He is one of four players in this squad from the Mohammed VI Academy in Salé -- Youssef En-Nesyri, Azzedine Ounahi and Nayef Aguerd also learnt their craft there.

Established in 2009, the state-of-the-art facility gave youngsters from all backgrounds a chance even if they couldn't afford to play for a regular club. Back then it was Nasser Larguet steering the project -- he is now the technical director of Saudi Arabia -- and they scouted the poorer areas, looking for promising talent. With financial aid from the king of Morocco, they turned it into a wonderful pipeline for future talent that has seen some graduates earn transfers to European clubs. Yet this is the first World Cup where Morocco's national team are reaping the rewards of that academy.

Bring all that together -- the coach, the happy squad, the flourishing young players -- and you have the backbone of this Morocco team. But also factor in their form, as Morocco's more recognised star players, such as En-Nesyri, Ziyech, Mazraoui and Hakimi, have all been brilliant in Qatar. Ziyech and En-Nesyri scored in the 2-1 win over Canada, and Hakimi has been playing through the pain barrier after he picked up a thigh injury in the opener against Croatia. "Achraf is a warrior that you should praise every day," Regragui said. "I asked him if he wanted to carry on, and he said, 'for my country I will play.'"

Others, like Amrabat, who is reportedly on the radar of Liverpool, have had a remarkable tournament, and Angers midfielder Ounahi will not be short of suitors either. "There are a couple of players in form, including my brother Sofyan," Nordin Amrabat tells ESPN. "He leads the team in the midfield. Together with the two central defenders Romain Saiss and Aguerd, and also Ziyech."

When Morocco face Spain on Tuesday, do not expect them to be overawed by the occasion. Instead, they will go toe-to-toe with Luis Enrique's side. They have the support of the Arab world behind them, and they're not ready to stop yet.

"The secret is that it's not a one-man-show," Amrabat adds. "They play together as a team."