Walid Regragui walked into the room hidden beneath his hood. Slowly, he peeled it back, the reveal met by applause. Then he sat down and, with his first words, said: “Well, it’s a World Cup quarter-final”.
Which of course it is, but the Morocco coach knows it is also more than that, seeing in their bid for a place in the semi-finals a means of bringing people together beyond their borders, a motor for African football and an opportunity for the continent’s coaches.
Regragui has only been in the job four months and, he revealed here, in discussions with the Moroccan football federation, that it is only his success that means he is still here now. Had the national team already gone, he might have done so too, determined to impose demands that would lead to his departure if they weren’t met. They have been: this team is only the fourth from Africa to make the quarters and, the coach insisted, having taken a harder route there than their predecessors.
“I want to change the mentality,” he said on the eve of the match against Portugal. “This won’t be easy, just like Spain, Belgium and Croatia weren’t easy.”
Born in France, Regragui fought to bring Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui back to the national team. He defended his turn to the diaspora in the face of criticism – “a lot of journalists said ‘why don’t we play with guys born in Morocco’,” he noted – and named a squad with footballers born in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium and Canada. Of the starting XI against Spain, seven were born outside Morocco; 14 of the squad were.
“We had a lot of problems about the guys born in Europe,” Regragui admitted after victory over Spain. But the winning penalty was scored by Achraf Hakimi, raised in Madrid, and the Montreal-born Yassine Bono saved two penalties, the team now projected not just as representatives of their country but a continent and a community, supported by fans from all over. With the exception of Argentina, no one has packed stadiums or made noise like Morocco, the first Arab team to reach a World Cup quarter-final.
A recurring theme, the idea of Morocco as the team of a continent and the Arab region is a discourse Regragui has been cautious about, but he is not unaware of its power and he talked here of the “good vibes”, the symbolism of their success. He also expressed his hope that it – that he – could have a practical impact on coaches. For the first time at a World Cup, all of the African nations are coached by Africans: Aliou Cissé, Jalel Kadri, Otto Addo, Rigobert Song and him.
“You would have to ask European clubs why they don’t hire African and Arab coaches,” Regragui said. “Maybe it’s culture, maybe it’s mentality. Today I think it’s impossible for Manchester City or Barcelona to bring in an Arab coach. They don’t even think about it, as if we’re not worthy, incapable. But there are moments in history that make people change their minds. And it is up to us Arab and African coaches to show we’re ready.
“When you have five African coaches, if the results are there as we have seen with Senegal and with Morocco, it can happen. I’ve been a coach for 10 years and nobody looked at me. ‘Oh, no, he doesn’t have experience. He can’t go to Europe.’ When there are five African coaches at a World Cup, there are more chances somebody will see. But what matters is competence. Your background doesn’t matter, your religion, your culture. Competence. If you’re not worthy, leave. I want to change the mentality. Sometimes we have to be honest. Competence. A lot of African coaches could coach in Europe and at great clubs.”
One of the very few African or Arabic coaches in Europe is Mehdi Nafti, the former Birmingham midfielder who managed Levante until last month and also played with Regragui at Racing Santander. “It’s a deep, interesting debate that Walid opens,” he says. “The World Cup creates a boom, publicity and awareness, but that’s only brief. Short term, it probably doesn’t change much but mid-long term, why not? It can help to open doors but we have to do our bit too.”
Change requires improvement in the leagues where coaches start out, Nafti suggests. And Regragui too talked of the need for professionalisation and structural shifts. “African football is making progress,” he said. “There’s a Super League, we want to invest. There has to be a locomotive to drive it, show the way. If we can do that, fantastic. The players can show anything is possible: that’s the role of sport. To bring people together, show them they can believe. That’s what the World Cup is doing.”
“We want to make history, inshalla,” Regragui said. “I’m proud. We can feel the positive vibes: you don’t only have one country, you have a continent, the Arabic people with you. That’s very important for us, but we don’t forget that we do it for us first. A lot of people pray for us. We’ve achieved a great deal but it’s not enough. We have to fight. We have surprised many: the algorithms, a lot of stats, all this data and calculations thought they knew who would win the World Cup but we want to show them we’re here and hungry.
“We have united Moroccans behind the team and that is worth more than money, titles, but I’ve told the players it is not enough. We have made people happy and proud and if we can bring hope and energy, great. But our focus is the pitch. Of course Portugal are the favourites. They want to win the World Cup, just as Spain did. We are going to do everything we can to try to win this game.”