Thousands of ecstatic football fans danced on the streets across nations – including Morocco’s capital Rabat and Qatari capital Doha – to celebrate the Africans becoming the first Arab country to reach the World Cup quarter-finals with a 3-0 victory over Spain in a penalty shootout.
With Tuesday’s historic victory, the Moroccan team, also known as the Atlas Lions, earned a last-eight clash berth with Portugal, who defeated Switzerland 6-1, this weekend.
What makes the Morocco national football team’s unrelenting success even more impressive is their decision to hire a new coach just three months before the tournament. He’s the man seen thrown up in the air – and accidentally dropped – by his players at the end of each game.
Walid Regragui, a French-born former Morocco international, signed a contract with the Morocco football federation in August 2022, which stretches up to the following World Cup in 2026.
The 46-year-old replaced former coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who was fired due to “differences and divergent visions” with the federation.
Fouzi Lekjaa, President of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, justified his decision to fire Halilhodzic due to numerous problems between the coach and his players, including his exclusion of Abderrazak Hamdallah, Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui.
Regragui was a former defensive player who turned out for French league clubs, including Toulouse, AC Ajaccio, Grenoble and Racing Santander. In the summer of 2009, he moved from Grenoble to Moroccan side Moghreb Tétouan for his last stint as a player.
After retiring, he worked as an assistant coach with the Morocco national team in September 2012 and briefly with the Qatari sports club Al Duhail. Then in 2014, he landed a head coaching job with Moroccan football club Fath Union Sport for the 2014–15 season.
At the start of 2020, he left the club by mutual consent and by mid-2021, Regragui was appointed as the head coach of the Botola side of Moroccan sports club Wydad AC.
In the summer of 2022, he led Wydad AC to its third win in the African Champions League title, becoming only the second Moroccan manager to win the CAF Champions League after Hussein Ammouta in 2017.
Advocate of foreign-born players
Regragui had long advocated for foreign-born players to gain greater acceptance within the national team, for which he even faced criticism from the international media. Spain-born Achrhaf Hakimi, who scored the decisive spot-kick of Tuesday’s game, is one of 14 foreign-born players in the 26-man squad.
A day before the game against Spain, the Spanish daily La Vanguardia published a report titled ‘Spain against the UN team’, referencing the different birthplaces of the Moroccan players.
The Spanish outlet described these players as “foreigners,” although most of the Atlas Lions were born to Moroccan parents. The report said the players chose Morocco over their countries of birth, which sparked backlash online from many Moroccans.
In response to the report, Regragui said they “did not care what the Spanish media is saying” and that “talking about what a newspaper said does not fall within our interests, because we are Moroccans, with a green Moroccan passport.”
The victory justified his decision to back foreign-born players.
“Today, we have shown that every Moroccan is (a) Moroccan. When he comes to the national team he wants to die, he wants to fight. As the coach, I was born in France and nobody can have my heart for my country,” Regragui said after the match.
“I fight to make it not about nationality, to make it not about passports. You have the competence – you can do it, or not. For me it’s not about being Arabic or African.”
Every country has its own football culture, Regragui said, adding that he is happy the team has created a mix of that with players from several countries, including Germany, Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Global football body FIFA described Regragui as “Morocco’s hero at Qatar 2022” and applauded Lekjaa’s decision to appoint him.
“The spirit Morocco have shown in Qatar, the renewed bonds within the team and the significant impact of returnees Ziyech and Mazraoui have all proven Lekjaa’s decision to be absolutely correct. It is also evidence that a united dressing room can be as important as tactics or coaching,” FIFA said in a statement.
The global football body’s statement said Regragui executed “an effective game plan” in a very short period of time and got “the balance of his team right”.
He also “united everyone, brought stability to the dressing room and repaired the cracks in the team that had formed prior to his arrival.”
FIFA highlighted the development of Moroccan players and improved performance over the years while crediting its fans for playing “a hugely important role in their national team’s success” by turning out in thousands to support them in Qatar.
Regragui, who calls himself an “ambitious coach”, said the team are aiming for the sky and a possible World Cup win.
“We set ourselves an objective – we wanted to give everything to get out of the group stages,” Regragui said. “We’re aiming for the sky, we’re not going to stop here, but we’re going to be a difficult team to beat, so why not dream about winning the trophy?”