Morocco are close to the World Cup final but face their toughest test in France



CNN

Morocco has experienced a World Cup fairy tale like no other.

The Atlas Lions are already the most successful African team in World Cup history – becoming the first nation ever to reach the final four of the tournament.

To reach the semifinals, Morocco beat European heavyweights Belgium, Spain and Portugal.

Now the Atlas Lions meet the best that Europe has to offer – world champions France.

After Morocco defeated Portugal, head coach Walid Regragui compared his team to “Rocky”.

“We have made our people and our continent so happy and proud. When you see ‘Rocky’ you want to support Rocky Balboa and I think we are the ‘Rocky’ of this World Cup,” Regragui said. “I think now the world is with Morocco.”

Morocco certainly outperformed at Qatar 2022, thanks in part to the 12th man” of the team in the stands.

Thousands of Moroccans live in Doha and thousands more have made the short journey across the Middle East to support their nation, making for a non-stop racket at every game.

After beating Portugal, Moroccan national airline Royal Air Maroc (RAM) announced it would offer nearly 30 flights to Doha ahead of the game against France, state news agency MAP reported on Monday.

Walide Regragui joined the Moroccan national team in August after winning the African Champions League with Wydad Casablanca.

Add to these fans, the support of Africans and Arabs from around the world, and the benevolence of a planet looking for the World Cup’s own Rocky Balboa to land two more KO’s in this tournament, there’s a growing feeling that France will not play at the Al Bayt Stadium in Doha but at the Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca.

The Atlas Lions are also fueled by perhaps the most unlikely of sources; their mothers.

After Morocco’s two victories against Spain and Portugal, players like Achraf Hakimi and Sofiane Boufal were kissed or danced with their mothers.

Her presence followed Regragui’s decision to invite the players’ families to stay with the team in Doha. Regragui’s own mother was present throughout the tournament, a first for Fatima.

“Throughout his career as a player and as a coach, I have never traveled to see him,” she told Moroccan broadcaster Arriyadia.

“I’ve lived in France for more than 50 years now and this is the first competition I’ve left Paris for.”

If the fans want to see tears of joy instead of sadness after the game, Morocco must do something they have never done before and beat France.

Despite the close ties between the nations, Morocco and France have only played five times, with Morocco losing four and drawing once.

Olivier Giroud overtook Thierry Henry as France's all-time leading scorer.

France have shown themselves at their most menacing and dispelled any doubts hanging over the 2018 world champions.

Despite missing at least five key players, the French have emerged as strong contenders to retain their title after beating England in the quarter-finals.

Kylian Mbappé was once again the star of the show and the tournament’s top scorer has underscored his position as the heir to the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player in the world.

But against England, France showed they have plenty of other dangers besides the Paris Saint-Germain striker.

Antoine Griezmann has reinvented himself as a midfielder and was instrumental in the win against England as he met another unlikely hero, Giroud, to bring the winner home.

Like Griezmann, Giroud has experienced a renaissance at this World Cup. After Giroud failed to score a single goal in 2018 and Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema then returned to the team, it looked as if Giroud would never play for France again.

Since then he has scored four goals at the World Cup – just one behind Mbappé – and is France’s all-time goalscorer.

And the rest of the French players will have to do their best as Mbappé takes on not only the world’s best right-back but also his closest friend Hakimi.

Hakimi and Mbappé have become close friends since the Moroccan moved to the French capital last year.

The pair play together for PSG and have become inseparable over the past year, making Hakimi the perfect candidate to stop his erratic boyfriend.

But no love will be lost if the pair play on Wednesday, something Mbappé said well before the tournament.

In January, when the PSG team was in Doha, Mbappé made the prediction that he would play against his friend.

“France, Tunisia, I hope we win and after that we play Morocco and I have to destroy my friend [Hakimi]’ he said in a video filmed by BeIN Sports. “It’s going to break my heart a bit, but it’s football. It is what it is, I have to kill him.”

Hakimi responded by saying, “I have to kick him.”

Mbappé and company will have to do their best if they want to get past this determined Moroccan side and reach the final.

France vs. Morocco: 2 p.m. ET

US: Fox Sports

UK: BBC

Australia: SBS

Brazil: SportTV

Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom

Canada: Bell Media

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