Morocco experienced a World Cup fairytale like no other.
The Atlas Lions are already the most successful African team in World Cup history, becoming the first nation ever to reach the final four of the tournament.
To reach the semifinal stage, Morocco beat European heavyweights Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
Now the Atlas Lions face the best that Europe has to offer: world champions France.
After Morocco defeated Portugal, manager Walid Regragui compared his team to ‘Rocky’.
“We have made our people and our continent so happy and proud. When you watch ‘Rocky’, you want to support Rocky Balboa and I think we are the ‘Rocky’ of this World Cup,” said Regragui. “I think the world is with Morocco now.”
Morocco certainly surpassed its weight at Qatar 2022, thanks in part to the team’s “12th man” in the stands.
Thousands of Moroccans live in Doha and thousands more have made the short journey across the Middle East to support their nation, creating an unceasing hubbub with every match.
Following the victory against Portugal, Morocco’s national airline Royal Air Maroc (RAM) said it was offering nearly 30 flights to Doha ahead of the match against France, state news agency MAP reported on Monday.
Add to those fans, the support of Africans and Arabs from around the world and the goodwill of a planet looking for World Cup’s Rocky Balboa to throw two more knockout punches at this tournament and there is a growing feeling that France he will not play at the Al Bayt Stadium in Doha but rather at the Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca.
Atlas Lions are also fed from perhaps the most improbable sources; their moms.
After Morocco’s victories against Spain and Portugal, players like Achraf Hakimi and Sofiane Boufal have been photographed kissing or dancing with their mothers.
Their presence followed Regragui’s decision to invite the players’ families to stay with the team in Doha. Regragui’s mother was present throughout the tournament, a first for Fatima.
“Throughout his playing and coaching career, I never traveled to see him,” he told Moroccan broadcaster Arriyadia.
“I have lived in France for more than 50 years and this is the first competition I have left Paris for”.
If fans want to see tears of joy instead of sadness after the game, then Morocco will have to do something they have never done before and beat France.
Despite the close ties between the nations, Morocco and France have only played five times, with Morocco losing four times and drawing once.
France gave their menacing best, dispelling all the doubts that hovered over the 2018 World Cup champion.
Despite missing at least five key players, the French have emerged as strong contenders to retain their title after picking up a win against England in the quarter-finals.
Kylian Mbappé was once again the star of the show and the tournament’s top scorer underlining his position as heir to the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player in the world.
But against England, France showed they have many more threats than the Paris Saint-Germain striker.
Antoine Griezmann reinvented himself as a midfielder and was instrumental in the victory against England, crossing another unlikely hero, Giroud, to bring home the winner.
Like Griezmann, Giroud has had a resurgence in this World Cup. After failing to score a single goal in 2018 and with Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema later returning to the team, it looked at one stage that Giroud might never play for France again.
Since then, he has scored four World Cup goals – just one behind Mbappé – and became France’s all-time leading goalscorer.
And the rest of France’s players will have to give their all as Mbappé pits himself against not only the best right-back in the world, but also his closest friend, Hakimi.
The two play together for PSG and have become inseparable over the past year, making Hakimi the perfect candidate to stop his mercurial friend.
But no love will be lost when the pair play on Wednesday, which Mbappé had said long before the tournament.
In January, when the PSG team was in Doha, Mbappé predicted that he would play against his friend.
“France, Tunisia I hope we will win and then we will play against Morocco and I have to destroy my friend [Hakimi]”, he said in a video shot by BeIN Sports. “This will break my heart a little, but it’s football. It is what it is, I have to kill it.
Hakimi responded by saying, “I have to kick it.”
Mbappé and company will have to give their best if they are to overcome this resolute Moroccan team and reach the final.
France vs Morocco: 2pm ET
United States: Fox Sports
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell means