Hearing the name of the country of Morocco probably doesn’t conjure images of soccer greatness. It’s understandable. The Moroccans have gone 20 years—five whole World Cups—without making an appearance on the sport’s biggest stage. But while Morocco’s national team hasn’t covered itself in much sporting glory over the past couple of decades, and while the current squad finds themselves stuck in an incredibly difficult group to make it out of, don’t let Morocco’s dim past distract you from their bright present.
Morocco itself might be a small country without an especially proud soccer tradition, but that doesn’t mean you should mistake this team for one of those tiny nations full of domestic-league players who are just happy to be along for the ride. Like other North African countries, Morocco has a wide talent pool to draw from in countries like France and the Netherlands, which means the European-based players they have aren’t in any way afraid of high-level soccer.
This roster features players employed by some of the biggest clubs in the world, like Real Madrid full back Achraf Hakimi and Juventus central defender Medhi Benatia. They can also rely on the talents of Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech, Getafe’s Fayçal Fajr, Schalke’s Amine Harit, and Galatasaray’s Younès Belhanda—players who are among the best performers oe really good teams in strong European leagues. So while the name “Morocco” won’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of their Spanish and Portuguese opponents in Group B, the players that make up Morocco’s starting lineup won’t be tremoring in their cleats at the prospect of going up against those players, either. Morocco have been tested before, and know they can come out with a passing grade. If one of Group B’s favorites overlooks this hungry and well-coached team, they might be in for more than they expected.
Goalkeepers: Yassine Bounou (Girona), Munir Mohamedi (Numancia), Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti (IR Tanger)
Defenders: Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (Lille), Manuel da Costa (İstanbul Başakşehir), Medhi Benatia (Juventus), Romain Saïss (Wolverhampton), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahçe)
Midfielders: Hakim Ziyech (Ajax), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Younès Belhanda (Galatasaray), Fayçal Fajr (Getafe), Mbark Boussoufa (Al-Jazira), Youssef Aït Bennasser (Caen), Nordin Amrabat (Leganés), Amine Harit (Schalke), Mehdi Carcela-González (Standard Liège), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord)
Forwards: Ayoub El Kaabi (RS Berkane), Khalid Boutaïb (Yeni Malatyaspor), Aziz Bouhaddouz (St. Pauli), Youssef En-Nesyri (Málaga)
Hervé Renard is a renowned figure in African soccer. On that continent, he’s something like a Svengali for hire, the go-to manager for the African country that wants to make some noise in a tournament. The fiery Frenchman, known for his sideline explosions, has won two African Cups of Nations with a coaching style built on intensity, fitness, and defensive solidity, and he’s brought those same traits to a Morocco team that had been struggling before he got there. While he’s yet to translate that well-established managerial prowess to the club game (Renard has flamed out in his latest two fairly prominent stints as a club manager back in France), another good showing on the international stage with Morocco this summer could earn him another shot to make it happen.
All of those facts are well and good, and in the broad sense is true for many a manager in this World Cup. What makes Renard really stand out is how ridiculously handsome he is:
Just look at that. He’s like Fabio with actual talent. Morocco, of course, have no shot at winning the World Cup, but if there’s a World Cup of Handsome Managers, Renard is a shoo-in for the final.
When lazy people call a player “[Insert country]’s Messi,” what they often mean is just that said player is his country’s best attacker. The allegedly Messi–like player is sometimes small and quick and slippery on the ball, but not always, and that’s what makes the innumerable comparisons to Messi so worthless.
When more thoughtful people call a player “[Insert country]’s Messi,” what they’re generally trying to convey is that said player is close to equally talented in the three big facets of attacking: dribbling, penetrative passing, and scoring. It’s the fact that Messi is one of the very best in the world at each of those individual skills—he can dribble like Ronaldinho, dissect a defense with a single pass like Mesut Özil, and score even more than Cristiano Ronaldo—that makes him such an astounding player. And it’s proficiency in each of those individual skills that makes a comparison, however limited, to Messi instructive rather than stupid.
Hakim Ziyech is Morocco’s Messi. He is a small, quick, left-footed attacker who can absolutely destroy opposing teams with his dribbling, his passing, and his ability to score goals. He’s been lighting up the Dutch league for years now, first with Heerenveen, then with Twente, and now with Ajax. Over the past five years, he’s averaged more than 20 combined goals and assists in the Eredivisie, and done so while playing a number of different positions. No matter where Ziyech gets the ball, once it’s at his feet, you can bet on it flying into the opposing team’s goal sooner than later.
Some caveats: the Eredivisie is famously attacker-friendly, and there’s a reason why Ziyech has put up superstar numbers year after year after year and yet still hasn’t been snatched up by a team in a stronger league. (Most probably it’s because the svelte 25-year-old looks like a great big string bean with feet out there.) With elite, muscle-bound defenders like Sergio Ramos and Pepe crashing into him in matches against Spain and Portugal, it’s not likely that the Ziyech you’ll see in Russia will perfectly resemble the Ziyech depicted in the highlight video above. But given just a sliver of space and a head full of steam, Ziyech can probably make even defenders of Ramos’s caliber look stupid for a play or two. If his Morocco teammates put him in that position enough times, they’ll at the very least give their perceived betters something to sweat about.
This is a Hervé Renard team, so they’ll play like one: cautious, defensively sound, and looking to hit on the counter when they can. This group is a doozy, so expect more safe defending than hard-charging counters. When they do get forward, look for Ziyech and Younès Belhanda to lead the way.
All times Eastern
June 15, 11 a.m.: Morocco vs. Iran at Saint Petersburg Stadium
June 20, 8 a.m.: Portugal vs. Morocco at Luzhniki Stadium
June 25, 2 p.m.: Morocco vs. Spain at Kaliningrad Stadium