Sofiane Boufal and Abdelhamid Sabiri scored to give Morocco a 2-1 victory in a friendly match against Brazil in Tangier on Saturday, earning their first victory ever against the five-time world champions.
World Cup semifinalists Morocco did not hold back and delivered a statement win against football powerhouse Brazil in their first home game after an outstanding Qatar 2022 campaign.
Morocco continued to ride the wave of their historic 2022 World Cup semifinal run.
The winning goal came with about 10 minutes remaining, as substitute Abdelhamid Sabiri roofed a loose ball in the Brazil box, and the Atlas Lions’ defense did the rest to see out a deserved result.
Cheered on by 65,000 fans in a sold-out Ibn Batouta stadium in Tangier, Morocco tried to make an early run but a steady Brazil held strong and the match almost turned into an ill-tempered affair, with the Brazilian players complaining bitterly to the referee after a series of bad tackles by the home defenders.
— Owuraku Ampofo (@_owurakuampofo) March 25, 2023
Brazil were more aggressive and controlled possession while Morocco were always dangerous in the counter-attacks.
The Moroccan team took the lead in the first half on a well-executed attack that was finished with a classy, spinning move in the box by Sofiane Boufal. But an uncharacteristic mistake by Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou on a shot by Casemiro Henrique saw Brazil equalize 1-1 in the second half.
Morocco were simply sharper, more aggressive, intense, and direct compared to their South American opponents. They were fueled by a capacity crowd that created a memorable environment for the first match played after their fourth-place finish in Qatar.
Morocco, who became the first Arab team to reach the quarterfinals and the first African team to make the semis, once again pumped their supporters with pride after a World Cup run that spurred tears of joy across Africa and the Arab world.
Regragui, who was the architect of the historic World Cup run, saw his team continue to perfect their signature playing style, turning biting defense into piercing attacks.
This was the only match that Brazil scheduled during this March international window. Meanwhile, the Atlas Lions will face another South American side in Peru on March 28 in Madrid.
Why did Brazil lose?
Perhaps you can blame the lack of a permanent head coach or the absence of several key players, but Brazil just weren’t as sharp and incisive as they usually are. The passes and combinations didn’t come easy, and players weren’t beating their opponents 1-on-1 as we’re used to seeing from the Selecao. Credit Morocco’s aggressive defending for Brazil’s lack of success in those departments.
It didn’t help that Brazil’s marking in the box was lax in the moments that counted, but the trio up top — Vinicius (left), Rodrygo (center forward), and Rony (right) — also missed on the few chances they did have. And the subs that came on, including Vitor Roque and Antony, failed to make a difference.
This Brazil team is one that appears to be in transition as it looks to identify a new coach and integrate a handful of new, young players.
The Atlas Lions were one of the best defensive units at the World Cup, but their attacking ability and skill sometimes gets overshadowed by the focus on their clean sheets. Morocco’s players showed they can ball with the Brazilians.
Regragui lined up some of his most skillful players in midfield with Bilal El Khannouss and Azzedine Ounahi bringing their talents to bear on the game, while Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal also oozed quality. It’s no wonder that Morocco looked dangerous on every transition that ran through those four players.
How did Morocco beat Brazil ?
Until Saturday, Morocco had suffered defeats in their only two other meetings with Brazil – 2-0 in a 1997 friendly and 3-0 in the group stage of the 1998 World Cup in France.
Before kick-off at the Ibn Batouta stadium on Saturday, both teams paid tribute to Pele, who died last December at the age of 82.
Regragui has suggested that his team defeated Brazil 2-1 in the friendly because his players showed their mentality to hang on during the encounter.
Speaking at his post-match press conference, Regragui said; “We wanted to win after the World Cup and that is what happened. We are happy because it is the first time that Morocco has beaten Brazil in history. They’re first in the FIFA rankings.
“Despite some of their players not being here, Brazil is still a very high-level team. We also have injuries, but we showed our mentality to hang on.
“This is the month of Ramadan, we’ve to go and pray Tarawih (daily Ramadan prayer) to confirm if it is true or not. Now we are going to celebrate, but it is a long way to go.”
Morocco’s tactical discipline in defense, speed on the counterattack and a dash of goalkeeping flair have been the keys to their success. It is a blueprint that similar nations have struggled to replicate.
Regragui has quickly molded a generation of talents into a cohesive unit who are playing for each other, something that has not always been the case for the Atlas Lions.
Perhaps Regragui’s biggest achievement has been ending the rows between his Moroccan-born players and those from the wider diaspora.
“Before the World Cup, we had a lot of problems with the guys born in Europe and the guys born in Morocco,” he admitted. “But today I think it shows to the world that every Moroccan is a Moroccan.”
Rather than treat diaspora players as somehow “less Moroccan,” Regragui, himself born just outside Paris to Moroccan parents, has used their experiences in top European leagues to huge advantage. Morocco’s players have starred in big Champions League clashes, and they know what is at stake better than rival nations who lack that know-how.
“I’m not a magician,” Regragui told reporters after eliminating La Roja, who registered 768 passes in the first 90 minutes alone.“We accepted we wouldn’t have a lot of possession.”
But Luis Enrique’s side could not get through, with Morocco using their back four and midfield three as two suffocating blankets which gave the Spanish no space to create big chances, often leaving them looking like a handball team passing the ball back and forth around the edge of the box.
Morocco aren’t the only team to defend deep, but they do offer a threat on the break which other “smaller” teams don’t.
“When you are part of the story, you don’t grasp what is happening very quickly,” Bounou said modestly after the game.
“We feel the support of our Morocco fans in the stadiums and at home and other countries. That is what drives us and motivates us to do what we do. “Everything’s good, we’ll stay focused.”
Who is Walid Regragui ?
King Mohammed VI is a huge football fan who, alongside Morocco’s football federation (FMRF) president Faouzi Lekjaa, is largely responsible for massive support and financial investment – unrivalled in Africa – in their country’s game.
In recent years, Lekjaa – a Confederation of African Football finance committee president- has pulled many strings to the point whereby Morocco has often become the focal point for the continental game, hosting several key meetings.
Faouzi Lekjaa, the man behind the giant Morocco project. pic.twitter.com/DTC6KNcoZi
— Angu Lesley (@angulesley442) December 13, 2022
Handily, Lekjaa is also a delegate government minister in charge of the country’s budget – and with the North Africans keen on global promotion and football deemed a perfect vehicle, money is not in short supply on a continent where it is often sparse.
In recent years, the FMRF has pulled no punches, investing $20m (12.2 billion FCFA) in women’s football and $65m (40 billion FCFA) into the state-of-the-art Mohamed VI training complex which, located on the edge of Rabat, was inaugurated three years ago by the King, who had already funded an academy in his name.
Morocco hired Regragui at the end of August 2022 in a moment of turmoil, with some of their most recognisable stars having pledged to never play again internationally and a difficult World Cup group awaiting in less than three months.
Not only did Regragui need to regain the faith of his players, but he also needed to deal with a skeptical local press that branded him “avocado head” to mock his bald appearance before he got the chance to prove himself.
Regragui has done more than any of his critics could have ever imagined, becoming both the first African and Arab manager to reach a World Cup quarter-final. He defeated Spain and Portugal to advance to the semi-final. He has just recently beaten the number one ranked nation in world football – Brazil.
He was born in Corbeil-Essonnes, France, but grew up visiting relatives in Morocco. He became a full Morocco international as a player.
His path is similar to many in the team who were born in other nations but have familial ties to Morocco.
Regragui’s most notable stops were in France and Spain, where he played primarily as a full-back at clubs such as Toulouse and Racing Santander.
He also gathered 45 caps with Morocco’s national team.
After spending time as an assistant on Morocco’s staff following his retirement as a player, he worked his way up through the ranks in African and Arab football, coaching at FUS, Al-Duhail and Wydad AC.
Regragui’s success at the latter club, where he won the CAF Champions League, drew the attention of Morocco’s international team.
With predecessor Vahid Halidhodzic’s situation becoming untenable amid strife with players and the federation that led Hakim Ziyech to quit Morocco, the nation sacked Halilhodzic in August 2022.
Rather than hire a coach of European descent, as has historically happened often with teams from Africa at the World Cup, Morocco chose Regragui with hopes his defence-first style could translate to success at the tournament.
Despite a group that included Croatia, Belgium and an upstart Canadian team, Regragui never showed fear.
“I think Africans can go far, why not dream of winning the cup?” he told reporters early in the competition. “We want the next generation to dare to dream.”
He is unapologetic about his emphasis on being solid at the back, and then worrying about getting forward on the counter-attack as needed. With attackers who have the flair to create chances out of nothing, it’s a strategy that has reaped huge rewards.
“A lot of Europeans have criticised our style of play but that is because they don’t like to see an African team play cleverly,” he said at a press conference. “They think African teams used to be fun but get knocked out. But those days are over now. There isn’t just one way of winning.”
The coach’s tactics have been impressive, but his man management has been pointed to above all else as the reason Morocco play such cohesive football under a boss who joined only a few months ago.
The way the players lift him in the air after each upset victory underlines his dressing room popularity.
Regragui’s inspiration for his tactical philosophy
Outscoring opponents or conceding the less? A question that Morocco’s Head Coach Walid Regragui took upon himself to answer in the World Cup last year, with a hint of genius in the making.
It’s a question that encapsulates the history of the game’s development and schools of thought that, for many generations, shaped how the fans watch the game, and more importantly, how teams win games and titles.
The argument of defense versus offense existed for centuries in war, politics.. In football, as long as the game’s sphere spanned beyond its European cradle. The spectacle and show business only grew with the game’s popularity and influence, which now goes beyond the game itself.
Football experienced through decades a phenomenon where, with a surge in popularity comes more requirements for a “show”, one that’s packed with excitement, goals, celebrations, star players and offensive plays never failing to deliver the emotion. The televised era of football, with the unimaginable heights it’s experiencing today, requires goals to be scored, as well as conceded.
This leaves another aspect of the game in a shadow of confusion, is defensive play boring? The football business says yes. Football in the money business sees profit in the neutral audience, the audience that watches games for the spectacle, goals never failed to deliver that.
“If you want a spectacle, go to the circus.” Said Head Coach Massimiliano Allegri in 2017, with reference to his Juventus side being framed by European media not being as fun to watch as Napoli, despite winning trophies.
In 2018 he said: “Many people watch games, only a few look at them,” and “When I quit I want someone to explain this thing about ‘playing well’, I am fascinated by it.”
Italy has a long and successful history of football, particularly one that’s symbolized by its rigid and organized defensive play. Legendary Italian Football Journalist Gianni Brera said in the 1960s “the perfect game ended 0-0. No one made mistakes on either side. And uncertainty would last until the very end.”
Catenaccio or “The Chain” is a tactical system in football with a strong emphasis on defense. In Italian, Catenaccio means “door-bolt”, which implies a highly organized and effective backline defense focused on nullifying opponents’ attacks and preventing goal-scoring opportunities.
The term Catenaccio was made famous by the likes of the successful Inter milan’s Alfredo Foni in the early 60s, or Italy’s Ferrucio Valcareggi in the 70s. It also saw the surge of terms like Libero, or sweeper, as well as the important innovation of the “counter-attack”.
This tactical basis fell out of favour with the rise of the fluid “Total-Football”, pioneered by Dutch managers Johann Cruyff or Rinus Michels before him, a system that disturbed man-marking with a fluid interchange and zonal-play. Total-Football is the predecessor of all modern day football’s tactical variants.
Regragui’s version of Morocco, which is similar to Brazilian Head Coach Jose Faria’s 1986 Morocco in its vision, is one where the goal is to concede the least, and secure any lead with all-out defense.
A testament shared with Italy’s Catenaccio, although not an exact copy, Regragui decided to take inspiration and applied some of its “outdated” elements to create one of the tactical masterclasses in recent years, and football professionals did not fail to see that.
Morocco’s style of play is evidently inspired by the Italian tactic. One example, the “Libero”, although not behind the defense, comes in the form of Sofyan Amrabat marshaling any defensive operation to nullify opposition attacks with aggressive interceptions and positional overloads when needed.
Hakim Ziyech and Azzedine Ounahi, Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui were integral to the Regragui’s tactical setup to bear fruit, as well as successors to Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan. Although his “Grande Inter” side were known primarily for their defensive strength, they were equally renowned for their ability to score goals with few touches from fast, sudden counter-attacks, due to Herrera’s innovative use of attacking, overlapping full-backs. Most goals scored by Morocco on an open play were a few passes away from breaking defensive lines.
Regragui’s managerial vision took inspiration from Italian football tactics, Faria’s devotion to realism in football, and sprinkled the flair of talented Moroccan playmakers on top. A medium block ensuring constant pressure by a “Shadow Striker” and a “Libero” Defensive Midfielder are innovations that glued the squad that, on paper, looked to be an underdog against top teams.
A testament to the ground-breaking innovation by Regragui is the round of 16 at the World Cup, where Morocco faced arguably the most dedicated “Total Football” team in Spain, as mentioned before, the bane to the Catenaccio, with their version of the tactic in the famously labeled “Tiki Taka”, the nemesis to Defensive styles of play.
▪️ First African nation to beat Spain at the World Cup since Nigeria in 1998
▪️ First African World Cup quarter-finalist since Ghana in 2010
▪️ First World Cup quarter-final in Morocco's history
The Atlas Lions roar into the last eight! @roadto2022en @FIFAWorldCup #Qatar2022
— TheSportsAnalyst (@elumeraymond) December 6, 2022
The 120th minute mark’s result of 0-0 could speak less to neutral fans, but the content of the game will forever be evidence of the first step towards the resurgence of defensive teams that, beyond scoring goals, can thwart the most offensive teams, and leave the game with a positive result. Brazil is the latest scalp after Belgium, Spain, and Portugal.
Legendary Morocco 🇲🇦 coach Walid Regragui believes Africa will win the World Cup if the number of participating countries from the continent are increased.pic.twitter.com/bTUgbP5uYl
— Ibrahim Sannie Daara (@SannieDaara) March 24, 2023
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