Why Americans should get behind the biggest underdog left.

I was in Morocco on the first day of 2020, touring Marrakech’s medina with some family. Our guide, Jafar, was professional and knowledgeable, good with our child, engaging with his histories and answers to our questions. Five stars, no complaints. No real connection either, which is fine; In such cases my introversion is not something I usually look for.

Until I told him while we were waiting, one of my side hustles was writing about soccer. He woke up. The professional customer service facade we were granted has slipped a bit, or at least turned around to reveal another face of it. It’s a familiar story—the power of sports to push boundaries, yadda yadda—but it’s familiar because it’s so often true. From then on, he talked to me about soccer as we walked, stopped for tea, and at every break in his official patter. Jaffer liked Liverpool because of African superstars Mohamed Salah of Egypt and Sadio Mane of Senegal, Liverpool were really good. He loved Real Madrid before moving to Liverpool. (Based on this, Jafar is likely rooting for Brazil this World Cup.)

In the beginning, I tried to admire the Moroccan men’s national team. I liked Achraf Hakimi; I liked Hakim Ziyech and then stayed on for Ajax instead of subbing infrequently for Chelsea. I thought Morocco were unlucky in the last World Cup in 2018, which I wrote about here at the time so it can easily be argued.

He waved this off. The players were gentle, he said. Not interested in playing good defense and not committed enough to the team effort. He compared them unfavorably to some nearby teams. Note to self: It is better to be sorry for the disappointment of the national team’s fans than to try to celebrate the rare achievements of the national team. It was easier to do with United States men in those days.

So, I can’t think of this Morocco team shockingly in the quarter-finals of the 2022 World Cup – without thinking of Jaffer. He got everything he wanted. Morocco played excellent team defense, yet maintained enough attacking presence to trouble any opponent. Players are bought in, organized and committed. Hakimi and Ziyech have performed well, but midfielders Azzedine Ounahi and Sofiane Amrabat, defenders Romain Saiz and Naif Agard, and goalkeeper Yassin “Bono” Bouno, the hero of Tuesday’s penalty shootout win over Spain, have been left behind.

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Before this year, Morocco had won two World Cups in five tournaments in its entire history. Six months ago, they lost 3-0 to the United States. Croatia have beaten Belgium and Spain in the last three weeks to tie the game. Whatever happens next, manager Walid Regragui, who was appointed at the last minute in August after the sacking of former manager Vahid Halilhodzic, is the coach of the tournament. Getting his team to play like this in three months is a great feat of organization and motivation. His reward is becoming the first African coach to reach the World Cup quarter-finals. Morocco is the fourth country and the first from the Arab world to travel this far from the continent. No one has reached the semifinals yet.

Remember when I said at the start of the tournament that the World Cup was good at its job? How does it consistently pick the best team in the world? How nice is it to know that this project isn’t completely random?

Counterpoint: It’s boring as hell.

Only eight countries have won the Men’s World Cup in history. Only five other national teams finished as runners-up in 21 tournaments. Because the championships in South America and Western Europe are so dense, each World Cup-winning country borders on a different winner, as long as you give England a risk-style dotted line over France.

Those successes carry over into the present. The top six betting favorites at the start of this World Cup (Brazil, France, England, Argentina, Spain and Germany) were all former winners. Only Uruguay, who last won the tournament in 1950, had worse odds than some of the non-winners. (Eighth-placed Italy failed to qualify, but after winning the 2021 European Championship, it would almost certainly have reached that top tier.)

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Thirteen of the past 20 semifinalists have come from those eight countries, with the other three spots taken by perennial powers but not-yet-winners Portugal and the Netherlands, both of whom are still alive in 2022. In the last two decades, only Croatia (still alive this year), Belgium in 2018, Turkey in 2002 and South Korea have been real semi-final surprises. College football looks like a bastion of equality by comparison.

Morocco rose to victory in part by tapping into some of that historic power. Senegal and Portugal, Croatia and Australia, and the US and Wales have many foreign-born players in their World Cup squads, but none have a higher percentage than Morocco at this World Cup. Ziek, Amrabat and left-back Nousair Masroi were born in the Netherlands; Sayce and Sophien Boufal in France; Hakimi in Spain; Others in Belgium and Italy. These are countries with some of the top leagues and, more importantly, the best youth development systems in the world. They gave these children of immigrants opportunities they could not find in their parents’ homes. The reverse diaspora returned to their families’ national teams, giving the Moroccan team a chance to make history. (The impact is also being felt in the women’s category, where the country qualified for its first World Cup in 2023.)

Not surprisingly, Morocco’s victory sparked celebrations across Europe, in Barcelona and Paris, Brussels and Rotterdam. (Some of these celebrations, especially after last week’s win over Belgium in the last two spots, turned violent, with injuries and property damage, and the police dispersal techniques that have become an unfortunate but unusual sight after soccer matches, regardless of which teams are playing.)

This dynamic is familiar in the United States, where immigration and family tradition make Mexico’s men’s national team the nation’s most consistently popular. That matchup is so close—the teams play so often, so many times with such high stakes—that it’s hard to get perspective on how special it is for these two fans to sit so close together, wrestle with each other and grow together. Thanks to immigration in new and unexpected ways. Across the ocean, through Morocco and its diaspora, you can understand how important it is to a team and its fans on both sides of the divide.

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Now Morocco and its fans stand in for all of us, including the US and Mexico, hoping to crash the party one day. In stadiums, They lived to the end. The World Cup should not have been held in Qatar. The message is depressing about what the global community is willing to put up with if the right people get the right amount of money. The human cost of preparing for the tournament was abominable. But bromides about sending the tournament to “new lands” promised by then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter were proved correct in 2010 when Russia and Qatar were announced as future hosts. The Fan support Because Arab nations and near neighbors like Iran are bigger than Morocco’s victory over Spain. The noise in the stadium reportedly reached 150 decibels when Hakimi’s penalty kissed the net.

Qatar (and Russia) was a particularly bad choice, but sending the World Cup to new places, creating an atmosphere like the one seen on Tuesday for countries like Morocco, brings it closer to the fans. Like Jaffer, he has something to root for other than the giant European clubs, and he deserves it. The tournament belongs to everyone, not just Europe and America. Won’t it be cool if we win the championship? And that too?


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