FIFA World Cup: Even in defeat, Morocco proved their ceiling in Qatar was world champions

Morocco really could have done it. From minutes six to 79, between the early thud of Theo Hernandez’s poached volley and the Kylian Mbappe shot that deflected into the path of Randal Kolo Muani, the Atlas Lions gave you all the evidence you would need to believe that on a different day they could have overcome the reigning world champions. And if they had done that – after all they achieved against the luminaries of Europe – what would be stopping them from overcoming the best that South America has? Even in defeat, Morocco proved that their ceiling was lifting the trophy in Doha on Sunday night.

To do so they needed as many fortunate breaks as they could muster. None came their way. The moment when Abderrazak Hamdallah could not scramble the ball beyond Jules Kounde in the 94th minute was this contest writ large. A lack of cutting edge would always have made it hard to cut through the Gordian knot of France’s defense. But on the game’s evidence this great Morocco side would probably have fumbled the sword onto their big toe anyway, such was their surfeit of luck.

It began even before the whistle had blown. Walid Regragui had gambled on the fitness of an XI that had been nicked, clipped and probed at by Spain and Portugal. It did not pay off. Nayef Aguerd was named on the team sheet but the West Ham center back was not fit enough to make the anthems. Romain Saiss hobbled through 20 minutes where he was outpaced by Olivier Giroud. Noussair Mazraoui made it down the tunnel at half-time but he had been a shadow of his best self.

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Regragui’s tournament ledger is overladen with impressive tactical tweaks; the 47-year-old had done the hard yards in attending seminars and masterclasses before the World Cup. After it, he will be giving them. But he will not want to draw too much focus to what was the gamble that failed over the fitness of three key defenders. In retrospect, he may conclude that it would have been better to plan around the absence of Aguerd and Mazraoui, not least because his defense looked so unlike itself from the outset against France.

Raphael Varane picked Antoine Griezmann out with a fine through ball but the pass was only on because Jawad El Yamiq jumped up when his teammates were stepping back. As France drove into the penalty area there was a Moroccan panic that saw every player in red congregate around Kylian Mbappe, no one spotting the danger of an unmarked Hernandez until it was too late.

Trailing to the first goal an opponent had scored past them in this tournament, Morocco needed to respond with a more proactive gameplan than that which had swept past Iberia. They did. Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi had Hernandez beaten all ends up, with Azzedine Ounahi ganging up on the right flank it seemed Morocco would find their equalizer.

France kept doing scarcely enough. Varane and Ibrahima Konate were on the outer limits of control, hurling themselves at the bodies that darted through this gap in the armor. Hugo Lloris and his right post somehow contrived to rob this World Cup of its defining moment, El Yamiq’s shinned bicycle kick off a Ziyech corner that seemed to be creeping into the bottom corner. Amends would certainly have been made.

There was not a great weight of chances for Morocco but there was ceaseless pressure, the sense that sooner or later France must buckle, the ancien regime ceding to these arrivistes from what might be world football’s next great talent hub in north Africa. At its worst, it took almost everything the French had, including Griezmann’s clearing boots from his own penalty area, for them to maintain a reasonable threat from their game of Kylian Mbappe-centric counter attacks. 

The half chances did eventually come Morocco’s way yet moments after Hamdallah scurried past four French defenders but failed to pull the trigger Mbappe showed him how it was done. It was not a good shot but he took it and the deflection favored him and Kolo Muani fired his country back to the final.

“We paid for the slightest mistake,” Regragui acknowledged afterwards. “We didn’t get into the game well, we had too much technical waste in the first half, and the second goal kills us, but that doesn’t take away everything we did before.”

That it most certainly does not. This was a team that proved in this game, as they had on their way to the semifinal, that they can test even the global game’s best. Their passage to the final four might have had a fairytale feel to it, such was the way it captured the imagination of a region, but it was also a collection of extremely good players who had been well coached beating opponents with greater name recognition.

In four years’ time, Hakimi will be just 27, Amrabat 29 and the outstanding Ounahi just 26. If the expanded 2026 World Cup can offer a greater reflection of the strength in depth of the African game then Morocco will be back. Build on what they have shown over the last few weeks and there is no reason why they cannot match this exceptional achievement.

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