Sun | Jan 29, 2023

Morocco in last 16 of World Cup

Published:Friday | December 2, 2022 | 12:06 AM
Morocco’s Youssef En-Nesyri (left) celebrates beside Sofiane Boufal after he scored his side’s second goal during the World Cup Group F match against Canada at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha , Qatar yesterday.
Morocco’s Youssef En-Nesyri (left) celebrates beside Sofiane Boufal after he scored his side’s second goal during the World Cup Group F match against Canada at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha , Qatar yesterday.

DOHA, Qatar (AP):

Walid Regragui stood in the middle of a team huddle as his players reached out and patted him vigorously on the head. Then they threw their coach in the air, almost as if they had already won the World Cup.

Regragui has been an international coach for only three months but still guided Morocco to the last 16 of the World Cup for only the second time in its history with a 2-1 win over Canada yesterday. It clinched first place in Group F for Morocco, ahead of 2018 finalists Croatia and semi-finalists Belgium.

Regragui’s squad has now collected more victories at a single World Cup than any other Morocco team.

No one thought that was likely when the Moroccan federation took a gamble on the 47-year-old Regragui in August by giving him his first job in charge of a national team. The payoff has been historic.

“About 50 or 60 years of Moroccan history. We’ve done it in a few weeks,” Regragui said.

Morocco’s two wins in Qatar, a huge surprise over Kevin de Bruyne and No. 2-ranked Belgium and then the victory over Canada at Al Thumama Stadium, is as many as the country had won in all its previous World Cup appearances put together. Morocco also drew their opener against Croatia to advance unbeaten.

AMAZING JOB

“We trust in him,” Morocco defender Achraf Hakimi said of Regragui. “He’s done an amazing job with not much time.”

The Moroccans’ only previous trip past the group stage at a World Cup had come in 1986, when they also won their group, but won only one match.

Goals by Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri delivered the victory over Canada and ensured that this team also went through.

Nayef Aguerd’s own-goal just before halftime made it 2-1 and lifted Canada enough for them to put pressure on Morocco in search of an equalising goal for most of the second half.

The Canadians came agonisingly close when a header from captain Atiba Hutchinson, who came on as a second-half substitute, bounced down off the crossbar and on to the goal-line.

Replays showed that part of the ball had crossed the line but not all of it.

“Two inches. Two inches from getting our first result,” Canada coach John Herdman said. “This isn’t Canada walking away with our heads down. We can keep our heads up.”

But even when his team’s total control suddenly disappeared, Regragui was happy with the fighting spirit.

“I loved the second half because that’s the spirit we were looking for,” he said. “First half, extraordinary. Second half, we fought.”

Canada, who will co-host the next World Cup in 2026 with the United States and Mexico, had already been eliminated before facing Morocco and lost all three of its games in Qatar, matching its three defeats at its only other World Cup appearance in 1986.