QATAR 2022: Ahead of historic quarter-final, fatigue, not Goncalo Ramos, is Morocco's great World Cup enemy
Morocco have come through against Belgium, Croatia and Spain. But can they prevail against Africa’s ultimate World Cup adversary?
It is a small group of nations from the continent that have come within two matches of winning the World Cup; in the month that the immortal Pele teeters precariously on the precipice of life, it would be fitting for his most infamous prediction to finally come true.
Of course, whether Morocco can actually go all the way is a whole other matter. They may have come through, in Belgium, Croatia and Spain, three of the top 12 sides in international football, but the road only gets tougher from here. As far as power rankings go, they would figure around the bottom in most, and are comfortably the lowest-ranked team remaining in the competition. However, they have bought a ticket—you miss exactly 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.
Now, in a literal sense, Walid Regragui’s side have not been particularly prolific in their shot output. Of the eight quarter-finalists, no one has averaged fewer attempts per game than their 7.5. Still, no one can accuse this Morocco team of lacking grit (they rack highest for both tackles and defensive solidity) or efficiency (they have scored four goals while tallying 3.1 expected goals); the jibes, now familiar in their sanctimoniousness, from the Spain camp and journalists alike will have only strengthened their belief and resolve.
(This is, after all, a team helmed by a manager who was appointed less than three months to its opening match against Croatia. That they do anything well enough to evince strong emotion is a credit in itself, and in any case, it is hardly the case that Morocco, as Spain midfielder Rodri claimed, brought “absolutely nothing” to proceedings when, ironically, Regragui’s side managed more shots on target in their Round of 16 meeting.)
So, just how good are their chances against Portugal?
Fernando Santos’ side made quite the impression in their demolition of the Swiss, Goncalo Ramos melting through their defence like, well, hot metal through dairy on the way to the tournament’s first hattrick. To see them cut loose like that, freed of the strictures imposed upon them by the caprice of their senescent captain and leading man, was slightly sobering, and more than a little frustrating. It would be just Africa’s luck for Santos to finally grow a spine at this moment, just in time to scupper a shot at history.
It is not just the nascent excellence of Portugal that demands pause either. There is the weight of precedent as well, pushing down on the glass ceiling that has, for more than three decades, resisted the continent’s vertical progress to the stars. There is not so much one causative factor as there is a web of them, fanning out in all directions and ever knottier in their complexity.
In spite of this, African sides have not been meek: on all three previous occasions when the continent has featured in the last eight, it has been necessary for them to be taken to deep waters. All three eliminations have come after the 90 minutes, and though there is divergence in the particulars beyond that, there is another uncanny common thread that runs all the way through.
It is one that also goes beyond the 90, but in the opposite direction: all three African quarter-finalists played extra time in the Round of 16 as well. Cameroon needed the decisive intervention of Roger Milla to vault Colombia in 1990, Henri Camara’s scuffed effort bowled over the Swedes in 2002, and in 2010 it was Asamoah Gyan surging past a tired United States defence to spear a shot past Tim Howard.
Come the subsequent game, there was a noticeable lack of typical pop and clarity to Senegal against Turkey. For Ghana, the sum of their creative enterprise was chipping balls in the vague direction of an overworked centre-forward (perhaps a factor in Gyan’s famous late penalty miss) in their elimination at the hands of Uruguay. Cameroon, even with the benefit of four changes to their starting lineup, gave away two tired penalties in 15 minutes either side of the full-time whistle to take a loss against England.
It seems then that the final, great enemy that must be vanquished is, in fact, fatigue. In an attempt to escape the box in a horizontal direction, African sides have too often hit the wall.
The portents do not look positive then for Morocco’s bid to go where no one else from their confederation has gone before. While the Atlas Lions doubtless relished their upset of Spain, the emotional high of winning on penalties will exact a hefty toll. Already, this is not the deepest selection, a painful reality exacerbated by pre-tournament injuries to Amine Harit, Adam Masina and Imran Louza. That Regragui’s side have soldiered on regardless is a nod to the spirit within the camp.
That said, there is only so long that the lack of quality can be made up for. As Walid Cheddira stumbled over his own feet time and again in extra time against La Roja, it became clearer than ever how little there is to call upon beyond the first 11. For a team with such an arduous playing style, it is remarkable that they have only made two changes (one of them enforced on account of illness) to the starting lineup throughout the course of the tournament so far.
That, more than anything else, represents their biggest obstacle ahead of Portugal. Mind over matter, sure, but can this Morocco team still even muster the elbow grease needed to turn sweat into wine once again?