Fifa World Cup
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Morocco ended 36 years of World Cup hurt by progressing to the knockout stage – then set their sights on going all the way.
Walid Regragui’s men edged past Canada 2-1 to finish top of Group F, the first African team to achieve the feat since the brilliant Nigeria side from 1998.
The Atlas Lions were unbeaten in their three games, with a goalless opening draw against Croatia – who finished second – followed up by one of the shocks of the tournament as they beat Belgium.
In the post-match news conference, Regragui and man of the match Achraf Hakimi were applauded into the room by journalists from their country.
But it was a question from a Libyan journalist which sent chuckles around the room and one which Regragui did not shy away from answering.
“Do you think you are likely to win the World Cup?” he asked.
Regragui looked at Hakimi and smiled before replying: “We set ourselves an objective to give everything we have and get out of the group stages.
“After that, why not? Aim for the sky. We need to change our mentality and we will be a difficult team to beat.
“Why not dream about winning that trophy? As African teams we need to set this objective.”
‘One of the best performances we have had’
Tournament organisers have said this World Cup is not just about Qatar, but is for the Middle East region and Muslims as a whole.
Before the game, Morocco fans were in fine voice, dancing and singing outside the stadium with chants of “Allez les Maghreb, Allez les Maghreb”.
Victory for Maghreb – which is Morocco in Arabic – is a one not just for the country but for the whole of the Arab and Muslim world.
Raucous Morocco fans were on their feet in the ground the whole game, cheering every tackle and jeering every time Canada players got their foot on the ball.
It took just four minutes for their opener, Hakim Ziyech profiting from poor goalkeeping, while Youssef En-Nesyri added a second before Nayef Aguerd’s own goal.
The last time Morocco made it out of the group was 36 years ago, failing to achieve the feat in 1994, 1998 and last time out in Russia.
But they face a tough task next against former champions Spain.
“It wasn’t very easy but when you have this opportunity to make history, you remember it,” said Regragui, who was appointed as manager in August.
“Honestly, today’s first half was one of the best performance we have had. We made Morocco people pretty happy.
“The own goal shook us a bit. We got into the second half and there was pressure but I loved it. These players were there and hung on.
“We fought and fought. I am happy for my players, they trusted in me and my country did too.”
Outside the Al Thumama Stadium after the game, cars were beeping their horns and supporters were waving Morocco flags from open sunroofs.
Former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba said on BBC One: “In 2018 none of those teams qualified for the next round so to see Morocco winning the group, the way they played, with a lot of intensity – I’m really happy for what the manager has done there.
“I know that he won the African Champions League with his team and then came to the national team.
“I knew he would bring the intensity but I didn’t expect them to finish top of the group and be the best team of the group.”
Hakimi a ‘warrior’
A photo of Hakimi went viral after the win over Belgium, when he jumped into the stands and was given a kiss on his cheek by his mum.
The Paris St-Germain full-back and captain Romain Saiss were in tears on Thursday and when asked by BBC Sport why he was so emotional, Hakimi said: “I never dreamed of achieving something for my country. Playing with Morocco is something amazing.
“To do something big for your country is better than with the club. I am here to help all the Moroccan people.
“When I was young I saw the last generation that came to the World Cup and I dreamed to be like them.
“For that I cry because I saw my family and those around me. We want to help the team, you never know when we can do it again. We are happy and need to enjoy the moment.”
Hakimi was an injury doubt but played the full game and provided a glorious assist for the second goal.
“Achraf is a warrior that you should praise every day,” said Regragui. “I asked him if he wanted to carry on and he said ‘for my country I will play’.”
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