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Morocco breaking Europe and South America stranglehold

Mark Meadows in Doha
December 12, 2022

The World Cup semifinals are usually the sole preserve of the old guard. Morocco have ended a historic hoodoo but unique factors in Qatar have contributed to their success. Will it last? Or will the status quo prevail?

FIFA Fußball WM 2022 in Katar | Marokko - Portugal
Morocco have exceeded all expectations at the Qatar World CupImage: Martin Meissner/AP Photo/picture alliance

Morocco are not just the first African side to reach the World Cup semifinals, they are only the third team from outside Europe and South America to achieve the feat.

Football's old guard had sewn up all the semi-final spots in the last four World Cups and will still take up three of the four semi berths in Qatar through Argentina, Croatia and France.

Before Morocco, only the United States in the first World Cup in 1930 and South Korea in 2002 have crashed the European and South American last-four party.

Money and tradition have a lot to do with why the same teams were always getting so far. But in a more globalized game, players and fans of sides from Asia, Africa and North America had hoped that the glass ceiling would have been shattered by now.

Morocco's incredible showing, helped by a swell of support in the first Arab World Cup, may just end up being a one-off.

"You can have less talent, less quality and less money, but if you have hope, work hard, fight and believe, you'll be able to do anything," coach Walid Regragui told a news conference.

Opened the door

It's a romantic thought but teams reaching the last eight from the other confederations away from Europe and South America are exceptions to the rule, never mind the semifinals.

Before Morocco managed it here in Qatar, Costa Rica were the last of those sides to make the quarters in 2014, when they lost on penalties to the Netherlands.

Ghana got to the last eight in 2010 but that is as far as Africa has managed until Morocco's brilliance, with Senegal 2002 and Cameroon 1990 also making the quarters.

Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who is now part of FIFA's technical study group for this World Cup, suggested that the short preparation time for the tournament given it comes wedged in the middle of the European league season had opened the door for a side like Morocco to flourish.

"I was very keen to see how a World Cup would go without any preparation time, how the teams adapt to having no time to prepare, because we know a World Cup is won and decided by how quickly the teams learn," he told reporters last week.

Morocco have certainly learned quickly and looked less leggy than Portugal in their 1-0 quarterfinal triumph.

Spark of brilliance

Another reason Morocco may have been able to succeed in Qatar as opposed to other World Cups is the increased 26-man squads used this time, mainly because of the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and the unique November and December timing. It has given coach Regragui more options.

Regragui, who has only been in charge for three months – another unique factor in itself – said: "There are 26 of us. Like I said, to get far in the competition, we will need everyone and that's what's happening."

Wenger meanwhile added another crucial element into the mix: "The five substitutions add some possibility to defend better in the final minutes of the game."

FIFA Fußball WM 2022 in Katar | Marokko - Portugal
Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou has been one of the players of the tournamentImage: Luca Bruno/AP Photo/picture alliance

Former Germany World Cup winner Jürgen Klinsmann believes the guile shown by the most skillful players has been extra important in Qatar because so many teams have packed their defense.

Morocco, especially with Hakim Ziyech, have shown the most flair among the outsiders and have therefore prospered.

"When games get really compact and tight, you rely on players having this capability to take people on," he said, while explaining why Argentina have progressed. "South America stands out on this because it's in their way of doing things."

Morocco's dash of genius, including star goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, has been aided by 14 of their squad being born outside Morocco and garnering different experiences in their formative years. Such a situation might not be repeated.

The advent of a 48-team World Cup in 2026 will increase the pool of countries who qualify, but whether it increases the chances of more surprise teams making the semis remains to be seen. On the contrary, the expanded pool of teams could just as likely dilute the quality.

Home-field advantage

When the US made the last four in 1930, football was a very different game. Only 13 teams from three confederations turned up for the maiden tournament and the US had six British-born players. 

South Korea reached the semifinals when they co-hosted the tournament with Japan in 2002 – and benefited from some controversial refereeing decisions along the way.

Italy fans still complain about the refereeing in their last-16 defeat to the Koreans to this day and the fact South Korea have not bettered that showing since suggests home-field advantage was a big help back then.

The United States, Mexico and Canada will hope a similar effect helps them as co-hosts in 2026. Mexico reached the quarters the last time they hosted in 1986 – but being the host did not help minnows Qatar this time as they lost all three matches.

Australia coach Graham Arnold does not think the gap is actually that big if you look at the surprise results from this tournament. Even taking away Morocco's wins over Belgium, Spain and Portugal, Saudi Arabia beat Argentina, Germany lost to Japan and Cameroon beat Brazil.

"Asia is throwing a lot of money into football," he said. "People can sit back at home and their opinion is maybe Saudi Arabia is not that good, or Japan. Look at what they have done."

But until sides from outside Europe and South America start consistently reaching the semifinals, the status quo with their money, history and power look set to continue their domination.

Edited by: Matt Ford