Farewell To Morocco, The Winners Of The World Cup
9:06 AM EST on December 15, 2022
I doubt even Morocco's own players really expected to make it this far, to the semifinals of the World Cup. That they did, in doing so becoming the first African and first Arab (a fascinatingly complex mix) national team to reach the final four, and thus endearing themselves to every single spectator in the world, probably even ones rooting for Morocco's opponents, says everything about the Atlas Lions' talent, resolve, and competitiveness. Similarly, I don't think anyone realistically expected Morocco to overcome mighty France in the semifinal. Yet in the match, the Moroccans once again covered themselves in glory, giving the French more of a fight than anyone would've predicted. They lost anyway, but boy, was it impressive.
When France scored the opening goal in just the fifth minute, with their first real chance of the game, you got the feeling that the carriage Morocco rode into the semis had finally reverted and France was about to go pumpkin smashing. Kylian Mbappé especially looked eager to get some swings in with his mallet of a right foot, judging by his incessant sprints behind the Moroccan back line and his body language that roared for booming through balls for him to run onto. But as sometimes happens with Mbappé, his single-minded focus on making his favorite play kept him deaf to the subtler actions the game was actually calling for. And without their best player dominating the proceedings, France left room for Morocco to see if there wasn't a little magic left in their Cinderella run before it was fully over.
Even without France looking particularly sharp in either attack or defense, their goal posed a serious problem for Morocco. The Atlas Lions had gotten so far in the tournament thanks primarily to their lock-tight defending and their precise counter attacking. Getting scored on so early, Morocco's first scoreboard deficit of the entire World Cup, threw that gameplan out the window. If the Moroccans were going to mount a comeback against a France team content to sit back, defend, and launch counters, they would have to do so playing a completely different style.
And they almost did it! For the first time in the tournament, Morocco had more ball possession than their opponent—61 percent, much more than their previous high of 41 percent against Canada. Even with so much of the ball, Morocco still regularly threatened France's penalty area with speedy transition attacks. Azzedine Ounahi continued his tournament-long star turn by quite literally running the show from midfield. He and his slaloms with the ball were Morocco's biggest weapons, and with a little more luck they would've helped the team score the goal that would've really would've put France to the test.
But France is still France, even when they aren't FRANCE, and strong showings from Ibrahima Konaté, Aurélien Tchouaméni, and Antoine Griezmann prevented most of Morocco's attacks from getting too dangerous on one end, while on the other supplying Mbappé and the rest of the attackers with enough tantalizing counter-attack opportunities to keep Morocco's goal under pressure. Morocco's goal never came, but while they were going for it, one of France's forays forward found pay dirt. The goal substitute Randal Kolo Muani scored in the 79th minute—and my god, how filthy was Mbappé on that play? That's how you know how good he is: even on an off day, he can play a key part in two goals—sealed the result. It was what everyone expected, and yet it came in a fashion no one would've saw coming.
And with that, the feel-good story of the tournament came to an end. I wouldn't call this a sad ending, though—far from it, actually. I think you could tell from the Moroccans' reactions after the final whistle—bummed, but not distraught—that they saw it that way too. This World Cup of theirs was absolutely phenomenal. So much of what makes the tournament special could be found in their run. They were massive underdogs in several matches and yet they came out victorious every time except for the last one. And they weren't the type of underdogs that successfully turn the game into something like a rugby match and wrestle their way into an ugly, fluky upset. No, Morocco's play was serious, considered, admirable, and, most importantly, lots of fun. The Atlas Lions deserved each one of their upsets, and with the way they outplayed France for the long stretch of the game between the two goals, you could argue that they deserved more out of the only match they lost.
The World Cup is great when a known but unheralded player takes his game to a new level on the biggest stage, and defensive midfielder Sofyan Amrabat did just that, bossing the middle of the park both with and without the ball throughout the tournament. What's even better is when a more or less complete unknown erupts in the World Cup, and Ounahi has been the single best example of this nobody-to-breakout-star trajectory during this Qatari edition. (Second place goes to Croatia's keeper, Dominik Livakovic.) Surprise, awe, delight—these are some of the very best feelings a World Cup can leave you with, and Morocco provided oodles of it.
So yes, it would've been cool if Morocco had had one or two more shocks in store for us, and it has to suck to come so close to the final only to fall short. But what's great about soccer, and its premier tournament in particular, is that it rejects the notion that the only definition of success is who wins the last game. Morocco went further than they had any right to, and their players, their fans, and anyone else watching them had a great time from beginning to end. If that's not winning the World Cup, then I don't care what is.