Morocco weary, but not wilting as World Cup run continues Wednesday

Skipper Romain Saiss is doubtful for Morocco’s semifinal clash with France…on Wednesday.

When Wolves had one of the best defensive records in Europe last season and Romain Saiss seemed to be in the form of his life, Bruno Lage came up with a new nickname for an otherwise unheralded centre-back: “The Moroccan Maldini,” reports

It may turn out the former Wolves manager was wrong. Because, for everything the great Paolo Maldini won, there was one medal he was missing. Lage should have picked another defensive great: the Moroccan Daniel Passarella, the Moroccan Franz Beckenbauer, the Moroccan Bobby Moore.

Because each was a World Cup-winning captain and now Saiss, currently of Besiktas, could join them. If one obstacle in his path is France, the country of his birth, another is the injury that meant he was stretchered off in the quarterfinal victory over Portugal. The immediate sense was to fear the 32-year-old’s tournament was over. Saiss hopes he may yet be able to face Les Bleus.

“I will try,” he said. “I don’t know. I will see and do some exams to see what kind of injury I have but I will try my best to be on the pitch. I hope it’s going to be OK but if I feel it’s too difficult I will not take any risk and put my team in trouble just to play the semi-final. But I will do everything to be there just as I did everything to be here for 55 minutes (against Portugal).”

Morocco withstood plenty of pressure in his absence, with the back-up centre-back partnership of Achraf Zari and Jawad El Yamiq holding firm against Portugal’s galaxy of gifted attackers. Morocco’s progress so far has been a triumph of spirit, as well as of organisation. If their first 11 have confounded expectations, the same is definitely true of the stand-ins.

“It showed the character and mentality of this team,” Saiss said. “Everybody is ready to play, it doesn’t matter if they haven’t played for a while or come in for every game. We put a lot of energy into each game, physically and mentally it’s hard but it feels so good. We know every game is really tough because we are facing only top teams in the World Cup so it’s even better after, when you win.”

Now, perhaps, Saiss in in the form of his life. Only one player in the tournament has made more than his 30 clearances; no one has topped the 13 tackles in their own defensive third of his Atlas Lions teammates Achraf Hakimi and Sofyan Amrabat.

Amrabat’s semi-final showdown with Aurelien Tchouameni pits two of the World Cup’s outstanding defensive midfielders against each other. A difference, with Morocco’s possession peaking at 42 percent against Canada and dipping to 24 against Spain, is that they have had much more defending to do. Amrabat is alone in playing every minute of Morocco’s World Cup so far.

The Fiorentina player is ready to shoulder a heavy workload. “It is very hard,” he said. “I have played almost 30 games this season already in three or four months. So it is very hard. But you have no choice. You are in the semi-finals. Everybody has to go until the end, ask the maximum from himself, from his body. Now it is important to recover.”

The cumulative fatigue is an issue. He found 90 minutes against Portugal tougher than 120 against Spain. “Maybe this was harder as we were a little bit more tired,” Amrabat explained.

“We played against Spain and it was a very hard game. I started this game not completely fresh. It is the World Cup, you have to give everything you have, I ran like crazy until the end.”

Amrabat was born in the Netherlands but of Moroccan descent and, like his brother, Nordin, has opted to play for the country of his heritage. Now his achievements have made his family emotional.

“They are so proud,” he said. “I see it in their eyes, they were crying. You start to play football to make them proud. They are your family. They always help you. When I was a child my father always bring me to football, always he was with me, it was very nice that we can give them this back.”

There is the chance to make them prouder still. “It is very, very special,” Amrabat added. “Hopefully we can go one better and go to the final.” Morocco’s charge has been fuelled by belief and he believes they can win the World Cup. “Yes, why not?” he asked.

For Saiss, the man who may have the trophy in his hands next Sunday, a dream may become reality. “It’s amazing for all the country, for Africa,” he said. “We dream of course, dreaming is free, but to do it is different. I know we made history but we want to keep making history. We’ll see.”


More Stories On Guardian

Don't Miss