Sports

The Team That U.S. Soccer Fans Should Root For Now

Morocco players hold their goalie above their heads in celebration
Yassine Bounou is thrown into the air following Morocco’s win against Spain. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images.

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 kid, engaging with his histories and answers to our questions. Five stars, no complaints. No real connection either, which is fine; that is not something my introverted self typically seeks out in such scenarios.

Until I told him while we were waiting that one of my side hustles was writing about soccer. He perked up. The professional customer service facade we had been granted slipped a little, or at least turned to reveal another facet of itself. This is a familiar story—the power of sport to transcend boundaries, yadda yadda—but it’s familiar because it’s so often true. From then on, he talked to me about soccer for all the breaks in his official patter, while we were walking places, when we stopped for tea. Jafar liked Liverpool because of its African superstars Mohamed Salah of Egypt and Sadio Mané of Senegal, and because Liverpool was really, really good. Before he changed to Liverpool, he liked Real Madrid. (Based on this, Jafar might be rooting for Brazil in this World Cup.)

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Early on, I tried complimenting the Morocco men’s national team. I liked Achraf Hakimi; I liked Hakim Ziyech, then still starring for Ajax instead of subbing in rarely for Chelsea. I thought Morocco had been unlucky at the last World Cup in 2018, which was an easy argument to make because I wrote it up here at the time. 

He waved this away. The players were soft, he said. Not interested in playing good defense, not committed enough to the team effort. He compared them unfavorably to some nearby teams. Note to self: It is better to commiserate over the disappointments of national team fandom than to try to celebrate its infrequent highs. This was easy to do with the United States men at the time.

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And so I can’t think of this Morocco team—shockingly, amazingly in the quarterfinals of the 2022 World Cup—without thinking of Jafar. He got everything he wanted. Morocco has played fantastic team defense, yet retained enough attacking edge to worry any opponent. The players are bought in, organized, committed. Hakimi and Ziyech have been great, but so have midfielders Azzedine Ounahi and Sofyan Amrabat, defenders Romain Saïss and Nayef Aguerd, and goalkeeper Yassine “Bono” Bounou, the hero of the penalty shootout victory against Spain on Tuesday.

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Morocco had two World Cup wins across five tournaments in its entire history before this year. Six months ago, it lost 3–0 to the United States. In the last three weeks, it has beaten Belgium and Spain and tied Croatia. Manager Walid Regragui, hired in August at the last minute after the previous manager Vahid Halilhodžić was fired, is the coach of the tournament no matter what happens next. To get his team playing like this in three months is a spectacular feat of organization and motivation. His reward is to be the first African manager to reach a World Cup quarterfinal. Morocco is just the fourth country from the continent to make it this far, and the first from the Arab world. None has ever made it to the semifinals.

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Remember back in the beginning of the tournament when I said the World Cup was pretty good at its job? How it consistently selects what’s probably the best team in the world? How it’s nice to know that this project isn’t completely random?

Counterpoint: That’s boring as hell.

Only eight nations have won the men’s World Cup in its history. Just five other national teams have even been runners-up, across 21 tournaments. So densely concentrated are the championships in South America and Western Europe that every single World Cup-winning nation borders another winner, so long as you give England a Risk-style dotted line over to France.

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Those wins reverberate into the present day. The top six betting favorites at the start of this World Cup (Brazil, France, England, Argentina, Spain, and Germany) were all previous winners. Only Uruguay, which last won the tournament in 1950, had worse odds than some non-winners. (The eighth winner, Italy, failed to qualify, but after winning the European Championships in 2021, it would have almost certainly made it into that top tier.)

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

Morocco has risen to success in part by tapping into some of that historical power. Senegal and Portugal, Croatia and Australia, the U.S. and Wales all featured numerous players born overseas in their World Cup squads, but no one in this World Cup has a higher percentage than Morocco. Ziyech, Amrabat, and left back Noussair Mazraoui were born in the Netherlands; Saïss and Sofiane 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 provided these children of immigrants with opportunities they may not have found in their parents’ home. The reverse diaspora back to the national team of their families gave them, and the Moroccan team, a chance to make history. (The impact is also being felt on the women’s side, where the country qualified for its first World Cup in 2023.)

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No wonder that Morocco’s success has been met by celebrations across Europe, in Barcelona and Paris, in Brussels and Rotterdam. (Some of these celebrations, particularly in the latter two places after the win over Belgium last week, turned violent, with injuries and property damage and police dispersal techniques that have become an unfortunate but not uncommon sight after soccer matches, no matter which teams are playing.)

This dynamic is a familiar one in the United States, where immigration and family heritage has made Mexico’s men’s national team the most consistently popular one in this country. That rivalry is knit so closely—the teams play so often, many times with high stakes—that it can be tough to get perspective on just how special it is to have these two fandoms sitting so close, struggling with one another but also growing together in new and unexpected ways thanks to migration. Across the ocean, via Morocco and its emigrants, you can get a sense of how significant that can be, for a team and its fans on both sides of the divide.

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Now Morocco and its fans are standing in for all of us, the U.S. and Mexico included, that hope to one day crash the party. In the stadiums, they have lived up to their end. The World Cup should not have been held in Qatar. The message of what global society is willing to tolerate if the right people get the right amounts of money is disheartening. The human cost of preparing for the tournament was abominable. But the bromides about sending the tournament to “new lands” offered by then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter back in 2010, when Russia and Qatar were announced as future hosts, have proven true. The fan support for Arab nations and near neighbors like Iran has been tremendous, never more so than during Morocco’s win over Spain. The noise in the stadium reportedly reached 150 decibels when Hakimi’s clinching penalty kissed the net.

Qatar (and Russia, for that matter) was the wrong choice specifically, but the notion of sending the World Cup to new places, of seeding the creation of atmospheres like the one we saw Tuesday for nations like Morocco, of bringing it closer to fans like Jafar, so he has something to root for other than giant European clubs, is a worthy one. The tournament belongs to everyone, not just Europe and the Americas. Wouldn’t it be cool if the championship did too?

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