Something similar is happening here at the World Cup in Qatar. Only this time will that idea be turned on its head, football’s latest outliers promise.
When Morocco’s manager Walid Regragui speaks to us about his country and his country, Africa’s ardent desire, he is talking about centuries of inequality, on the football field and beyond. He talks about respect, belonging and wanting to be accepted. “Tomorrow we will run, there will be no fatigue. We have a huge opportunity. I don’t want to waste it and wait another 40 years to discuss an African team at a press conference. This is our time.”
This time, the blue blood of world football, Les Bleus themselves, defending champions of the world game, former colonial masters of the North Africans, will meet this new different form of rise. France would be painfully aware that the team they face in Wednesday’s semi-final, Spain, has knocked out fellow former colonial master Portugal, an old rival in the ancient Iberian geosphere, to be here, a rightful claimant of their crown.
However, it would all be uncomfortable. France is known to be famous for slipping ahead of their former colonies on the world stage. In 2002, once again defending champions, they were humiliated by Senegal in the opening game of the World Cup. The sight of the Senegalese dancing around goal scorer Papa Diop’s shirt carefully placed by the corner flag, like an ancient pagan ritual and with the rest of the world joining in, instantly became one of the most defining images of football’s equalizing power.
On Tuesday, Didier Deschamps would choose his words carefully, the best coach of the current World Cup generation would dwell mainly on football and its tired, worn technical jargon, his rival on the other side of the ring, the friendly, eloquent 47- year-old born and raised in Corbeil-Essones, a rough neighborhood south of Paris, would speak of the bigger picture, of pride and crazy dreams. He would also speak of the “need to destroy statistics”. The message would get through.
“I’m not talking about social exclusion from our past,” he would try to clarify, but we would know he did just that: “We want to put Africa on top. It’s time to put Africa on top.” It’s not an idle, hollow claim.
Regragui will talk about not being tired, about hunger. Of terrifying unity.
“I hope they’re hungry,” he would say of his team. “That’s what I asked them in the huddle after the game against Portugal: ‘How hungry are you?’. Because if you’re not, for a semi-final, then that’s a problem. Not everyone is lucky enough to play in a semi-final.
“I think our greatest strength is that we have a great team spirit, we are ready to rewrite the history books. We have to be very strong to move forward, and I know we are not the favourites. We still want to move on and everyone might think we’re tired, but you can’t be here.”
While laying down the changed rules for a new football order, the Moroccan coach talked about his country’s fans, the support, the presence of mothers, brothers and wives in their camp. Then he spoke about ‘Niyyah’. No, he would invoke it, Intention in the Arabic language, that essential condition for performing any kind of good deed. Then he told the European journalists to look it up in the dictionaries.
Morocco was always at the World Cup, it always ended under the radar. This time, Regragui promises it will be different. He delivered. “I came from a difficult area in France and I had to fight more than other people. If it can help me that would be great. Maybe it can make me hungrier. But I’m also here because I’m a good coach,’ he insisted, insisting that they belong here on the top podium, ‘My mission is the World Cup. We are not here to joke or do the motions. Tomorrow we go deep.”
“I want to change that mindset that we are easily satisfied. We want to reach the final, not be happy with just reaching the semi-final. We’re ready to give it our all and cause an upset like we’ve done here before. We are focused. We have tremendous energy to drive us. If you have the support of the public, you want to move on.”
He would also talk about football. “Guardiola was once my hero too,” he told us, “The Europeans don’t like us because we don’t play the way they want. You like the football statistics more, but there isn’t just one way to play. Those days are over that African teams played with verve and entertained you with their flair. We want to win. I don’t care about expected goals or possession. We had no chance of winning the World Cup from the start, but we’re going to destroy those stats tomorrow. What are our chances now like the top four teams in the world? Twelve percent, yes? We’re going to try to do more.”
Then he would talk about football’s innate unifying power. “You know, the beauty of football? That everyone has their own opinion about it. Everyone has their view on football, we have ours. Sometimes it’s not the best team that wins the game. That’s why football is so popular, the best game. Football brings people together, it is a stimulating force. It must be a festival tomorrow, you must see it as a celebration. If we don’t win, we will be behind Frans and support them in the final.”