- From Morocco’s history-making run to the enthusiasm of Mideast fans, this was a World Cup like no other
And so the dust begins to settle, and the analysis begins.
Looking back, Morocco’s opening match at the very first World Cup to be held in the Arab world did not live long in the memory. A goalless draw with Croatia hardly captured the attention of the football world and a fair few observers would have written off the Atlas Lions’ chances of getting out of their group — especially as their next match was against Belgium, a country ranked by FIFA as second in the world behind Brazil. However, not only did they progress (unlike the Belgians), they topped their group and went further in the tournament than Brazil and Germany, who between them had previously won nine World Cups.
It was truly remarkable.
By becoming the first-ever Arab nation to reach the quarterfinals and then the semifinals, they also eclipsed the previous achievement of any side from the African continent. Only three African sides —Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 — had reached the last eight, so this was not only unprecedented but also a fully-merited achievement.
In their first five matches they conceded only a single goal, an unlucky deflection off Nayef Aguerd in their 2-1 win over Canada; none of the other seven quarterfinalists could point to such a strong defensive record, all letting in at least two. In the last 16 they saw off Spain who had been responsible for the biggest win in Qatar, a 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica; then in the quarterfinals they dispatched another European giant, Portugal, who had just beaten Switzerland 6-1 in the previous round.
There was something fitting about their efforts given the location. Yet there was something interesting in how they were viewed against the backdrop of the hosts as well.
For, as soon as Qatar was selected back in 2010, this competition was mired in controversy and complaints. There were concerns from the Western world over the motivation of choosing a land that had never qualified for a World Cup, had what was perceived as little tradition of football, and would have to stage the matches during the northern hemisphere’s winter. Additionally, in the run-up, human rights issues were raised especially in the treatment of migrant workers involved in the vast construction projects, and the attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community.
The counter was that there was a sense of hypocrisy in Western criticism, if you bear in mind when England were hosts in 1966 homosexuality was a criminal offence and Qatar only gained independence from the British in 1971. Still, that outside view remained highly negative. But did the tournament win over any hearts and minds of those that traveled?
England fan Jono Vernon-Powell was attending his 10th consecutive World Cup, and said: “In addition to experiencing another country’s culture and 21st century way of life, the most exciting element was being able to attend games at different stadia, daily — all within 40 miles of each other. This was particularly appreciated considering the next World Cup will be shared between the USA, Mexico and Canada. But the overriding memory will be of so many Middle Eastern and Asian fans enthusiastically embracing it. Whether migrants or regional visitors, their exuberance in the spirit and carnival atmosphere was infectious. I hope that in time it will be seen as a watershed moment for not only football in the region, but more importantly paving a way to acceptance. And that the country, and whole region, will welcome people regardless of their social, cultural and economic background”.
Whether that constitutes success is hard to say.
For the Arab nations back on the field, outside of Morocco, there was frustratingly little, even if Saudi Arabia, who were ranked the second lowest side in Qatar, did spring the first major surprise and arguably the greatest in history.
The Saudis came from behind to beat Argentina 2-1 with two goals in quick succession to stun the side that would go on to become champions in what was their only defeat. The winning strike from the Saudi
captain ,Salem Al-Dawsari, was one of the goals of the tournament, swiftly followed by one of the most impressive celebrations as he cartwheeled away in delight. Such was the excitement generated at home by this unexpected victory that a national holiday was declared, as they ended the Argentines’ 36-match unbeaten run.
That was the dizzying high. A lasting low will be that the Green Falcons were not able to build on that, losing their two other group matches and failing to progress.
Others will be left with the same mish-mash of contradictory feelings. Take Tunisia who, while finishing third in their group, did record a 1-0 win over France. And then there was Qatar, who became only the second World Cup hosts in 22 tournaments to fail to get out of their group after South Africa in 2010. The Maroons did not manage to secure even a point in their three matches, with this performance coming despite the long-term investment in the Aspire Academy and the solid foundations laid down by Spanish manager Felix Sanchez.
But if World Cup legacy was about hosting, rather than playing, what is that legacy? Off the pitch, having invested an estimated $220 billion (including $48 billion on the construction of seven brand new stadia, $50 billion on infrastructure projects, and $77 billion on facilities) it is difficult to envisage Qatar generating anything close to the level of income to cover it.
Football finance expert and University of Liverpool academic Kieran Maguire highlights the limitations. “The issue for Qatar was it had to pretty much start from scratch in terms of tourism, transport and infrastructure so the long-term return is questionable,” he says. “Two of the stadiums have been built in such a way that they have been sold to Egypt and Morocco for use after the World Cup is over. But the value of those is limited, bringing in only a few million.”
Clearly, the most positive legacy for Arab football then was provided by the Moroccans, led by the impressive Walid Regragui. The Paris-born manager only took over the national side in late August, leaving him just a few months to prepare. In that limited time, he moulded a side that went further than much more vaunted teams.
They were a group that benefited from the investment made in their national training centre Complexe Mohammed VI Maamoura in Rabat which opened in 2009. Like the celebrated Clairefontaine Academy in France which produced players of the calibre of the 2022 Golden Boot winner Kylian Mbappe and Thierry Henry, the idea is to hone the skills of elite players at a young age to give them the best opportunity to succeed at the top level of the game. Of the current side, graduates include Youssef En-Nesyri, who scored the winner against Portugal in the quarterfinal and became the first Moroccan to score at two World Cups, alongside Azzedine Ounahi and Aguerd who were both very impressive.
Osian Roberts, who is now the assistant manager of Premier League club Crystal Palace, joined the Moroccan FA as technical director in 2019 and recently spoke about the impressive ambitions of the country. “It wasn’t just a wish or a dream. There was a plan behind it in order to achieve success. For me it was just a wonderful opportunity to develop football further in Morocco and become one of the leading nations in Africa that everybody could aspire to work towards.”
During their run to the semifinals the Moroccans drew inspiration from the supporters who traveled in their thousands. It was not just the excellence of their football that made the world sit up and take notice but also the many heart-warming, emotional scenes the players enjoyed with their relatives after their victories, showing how close-knit a group this was as well as underlining the importance of family values.
They deserve the many accolades that they received from all corners of the globe.
The final words are from Regragui himself in the aftermath of their semifinal defeat to France, as he pointed towards the legacy for his side and the rise of Arab football.
“We wanted to rewrite the history books and you can’t do that with a miracle; it takes hard work. We have given a good account of African football and that mattered because we represent our country and our continent. People respected us before and maybe they will respect us even more now. We have to do even better in the future.”