Morocco’s improbable, history-making run at the World Cup is about to get its ultimate test.
Africa’s first World Cup semifinalist are playing defending champion France and their star striker Kylian Mbappé, the leader of a new wave of football superstars coming out of an era dominated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Wednesday evening’s match has cultural and political connotations — Morocco was under French rule from 1912 to 1956 — and the outcome is far from the foregone conclusion many would presume by looking at the names of the players and the rankings of the teams.
Morocco has exceeded all expectations in Qatar by beating second-ranked Belgium in the group stage and then eliminating European powerhouses Spain and Portugal in the knockout phase to reach the semifinals.
No African or Arab nation has ever got this far.
It is one of the biggest stories in the World Cup’s 92-year history and Morocco is not done yet.
“I was asked if we can win the World Cup and I said, ‘Why not? We can dream, it doesn’t cost you anything to have dreams,’” said Walid Regragui, Morocco’s French-born coach.
“European countries are used to winning the World Cup and we have played top sides, we have not had an easy run. Anyone playing us is going to be afraid of us now.”
So what about France?
The defending champions have just passed their own big test by coming through a tough quarterfinal match against England.
No player has scored more than Mbappé’s five goals so far this tournament — although Argentina’s Lionel Messi has equalled it — but it won’t be easy for him to add to that tally against Morocco, who have yet to concede a goal to an opposition player at this World Cup.
France start as the big favourite, though, because of its star quality and experience. In Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann, a forward who has reinvented himself as a midfield playmaker at the World Cup, the team have two of the World Cup’s leading players while Olivier Giroud’s winner against England took him to four goals.
They have attacking threats from everywhere and that intangible quality of just knowing how to get the job done. France centre back Raphael Varane said there will be no danger of complacency among his teammates in a game against the world’s number 22-ranked team.
“We have enough experience in the team to not fall into that trap,” he said.
“We know Morocco isn’t here by chance. It is up to us, as experienced players, to make sure we are all prepared for another battle.”
The semi-final kicks off at 20:00 CET on Wednesday night. The winner faces Argentina in the final next Sunday.