Hear the Atlas Lions' roar: Morocco's World Cup success inspires a nation to dream
Morocco’s win over Spain in the second round of the 2022 World Cup has already become iconic.
The upper tier of Education City Stadium is now set to be dismantled and sent overseas but Qatar officials may struggle to find the roof that is presumably in orbit after Achraf Hakimi scored the decisive penalty.
It was a kick that sent the team into the quarter-finals of the World Cup, a kick that shook the Arab world and, potentially, a kick that could change football forever.
"The Atlas Lions are now the only team of the eight remaining not from the traditional football centres of Europe and South America. That means that they are also the sole Arab representatives left and the only Arab team to get this far in the history of the tournament"
The Atlas Lions are now the only team of the eight remaining not from the traditional football centres of Europe and South America. That means that they are also the sole Arab representatives left and the only Arab team to get this far in the history of the tournament.
If it all ends against Portugal on Saturday, the players will return to Rabat to a heroes’ welcome (it has been quite a year for football there with the women getting to the final of the Women’s African Cup of Nations).
If it does not end on Saturday and they move into the last four then it is hard to imagine the excitement that will be felt in Morocco and the wider region. A semi-final against England or France would be on another level again.
Such an outcome is no longer seen as impossible. The fact the run to the last eight is fully deserved is starting to be accepted around the world. Nobody expects Morocco to be lifting the trophy on December 18 but then nobody expected the team to top a group ahead of European powerhouses Belgium, ranked second in the world, and Croatia, finalists in 2018.
No other team in the group stage collected more than the seven points managed by Walid Regragui’s men. This is a hard-working, well-organised and united team that has conceded just one goal in the last eight games, and that was a fluke own goal.
Add that to the presence of some top-class players such as Hakimi, Hakim Ziyech and Sofyan Amrabat then Morocco will take some stopping.
There was respect then ahead of the Spain game with an increasing number of pundits – two from the UK newspaper The Guardian alone – tipping the Africans to defeat the 2010 world champions.
They deserved to do so. It would not be a surprise if Morocco defeat Portugal and get into the last four. And if they can get there, then anything can happen. If you don’t concede goals in knockout games, then you always have a chance especially if there is a little luck along the way.
A red card here, a mistake or piece of genius there, and the trophy could be heading to a new continent. That would have been seen as almost impossible just three weeks ago.
Whether Morocco wins or not, once a team is part of the last eight fans, players, coaches and everyone has earned the right to dream. That is what sport is all about and there is nothing wrong with imagining what could happen on December 18 at Lusail Stadium.
In the short-term, victory would be the sporting story of the year, sending shockwaves throughout the world. It would give the European/South American axis, one that football has been revolving around since it started, a huge shake. It would be the biggest statement possible that this truly is a global game.
The reaction in Morocco would be impossible to describe. In the Arab world too, there would perhaps be a little jealousy along with the excitement but there would also be inspiration.
If Morocco can do it then why can’t the likes of Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia? It would lead to greater self-belief. Already the Atlas Lions have shown they can live with the best in the world.
Confidence is hugely important with Arab teams guilty in the past, at times, of showing too much respect to the traditional powerhouses of world football. If Morocco wins the World Cup or even gets close, then the team will be approaching powerhouse status itself.
There are some vibrant domestic leagues in the region from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates to Egypt and Algeria. Still, though, there is a huge amount of attention paid by media and fans to the big leagues of Europe and the UEFA Champions League.
This is not going to change any time soon but glory on the world stage can only help the local leagues in Morocco and the wider region.
There would be a surge of interest in the domestic game (this happened in South Korea’s league after the national team reached the last four in 2002) with bigger attendances in stadiums and bigger audiences watching on television.
More sponsors would get involved bringing more money into the game. Federations and local authorities will have to act quickly and wisely to make the most of this bonanza: to keep as many new fans as possible and ensure that money flows to the grassroots in terms of coaching, facilities and youth development.
There will be a huge rise in the number of children who are inspired to take up the game and if they are greeted by more and better coaches and more and better playing surfaces, the foundation will become stronger still.
The talents from the region will also be in more demand in Europe. Already the likes of Hakim Ziyech, Hakimi and Nasser Mazraoui play for some of the world’s biggest clubs Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich respectively.
Others will join the elite. Sofyan Amrabat has been one of the best midfielders in the tournament and has been linked to a move to six-time European champions Liverpool. There are going to be more foreign clubs looking at Morocco and other Arab leagues for talent. An increasing number of players active at the highest levels in Europe backed by a rise in the quality and quantity of players coming through at home would be very healthy.
This will happen to an extent even if Morocco loses on Saturday but that is not the limit of the team’s ambition now. Lifting the trophy is still a long shot but not impossible. The Reds are just 180 minutes away from the final.
Getting there, or even into the last four, would be absolutely massive for Morocco and the Arab world. those in charge of the game in the region would have to be ready to take advantage of a surge of interest, pride and excitement to help short-term success produce long-term improvements.
For now, though, the fans and the players can dream and all eyes are on Qatar this Saturday.
John Duerden has covered Asian sports for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, and New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden