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.

How They Play

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.


Group B Fixtures

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