Regragui is a unifying force inviting everyone along to Morocco’s journey

On the eve of the tournament, Morocco coach Walid Regragui wanted Morocco to start as they mean to go on.

He urged Morocco supporters to have “niya” (good faith) and positive energy, and in a couple of sentences he had lit the fuse for Moroccans to support the team unconditionally, getting the tone and level of seriousness right when it mattered most.

 “The energy plays a role in football,” he said. “When people are in good faith, the ball will hit the bar and enter. And vice versa, if some are saying: ‘Look at this avocado head, he talks too much,’ and show bad faith, the ball would hit the bar and go out.”

It was a classic Regragui-an soundbite to unify the Moroccan public, and not too dissimilar to the words he used to utter to unite the Wydad Casablanca fans last season on their way to a historic league and Champions League double.

Those are words you would have never heard from his predecessor Vahid Halilhodzic. Morocco under the Bosnian were hard to beat, and he will feel he deserves some credit for what has followed, but he was a divisive figure when it came to the way he communicated with the public, preferring a confrontational approach.

To Regragui’s credit, he has come in and recognised the need to do a cultural and public relations reset, and in doing so he has reunited and re-energised the Morocco national team on and off the pitch.

Hakim Ziyech’s return from exile always looked probable once Halilhodzic departed, and Regragui has been able to squeeze ounces out of him and more. Suddenly, Ziyech is feeling the love, and he’s repaying that love in his work off the ball as part of Morocco’s water-tight system. No one has ever seen him work harder.

For so long one of the hot topics in Moroccan football has been the balance between local players and diaspora players in the squad, and whether they have got the equilibrium right. Did these diaspora players really care enough? Does the person on the street in Morocco relate to them?

“Before this World Cup we had a lot of problem about guys born in Europe,” the French-born Regragui recently said. “Sometimes people, including some journalists in this room, said ‘These guys don’t love Morocco. Why not play with the guys born in Morocco? We showed the world that every Moroccan is Moroccan. When he comes with the national team, he wants to die, wants to fight.”

Regragui and his team have emphatically silenced the noise with the spirit, commitment, and togetherness they have shown during this most remarkable of World Cup journeys.

Morocco finished the quarter-final against Portugal with Yahya Attiyat-Allah, Yassine Bounou, Badr Benoun, Achraf Dari, and Jawad El Yamiq as part of their defence. That, too, was a symbol of unification. All five are familiar names to African football enthusiasts; all are cherished sons of fierce rivals Raja Casablanca and Wydad Casablanca.

Regragui has also expertly managed the players who haven’t yet had any minutes, or have only played a bit-part role, by taking them with him to pre-match press conferences. Third choice goalkeeper Reda Tagnouti has had an outing, as has Ilias Chair and others. They all feel involved, praising the team and the coach, as he gives them a bit of the limelight.

The message is clear: we’re all in this together. Whether the players are Moroccan-Belgian, Moroccan-Dutch, Moroccan-Italian, Moroccan-Spanish, or local Moroccans, Regragui has been keen to stress that they are, above all, Moroccans. Whether their formative years were spent in local academies or abroad, or they ply their trade locally or abroad, they are Moroccans and playing for Morocco.

Of course that togetherness, that sense of belonging, doesn’t happen by chance, especially when you have only had two months to bring this all together, as Regragui has had.

The seeds, first and foremost, need to be planted. At every stage of the competition, the charismatic Regragui has brought the world on a journey with Morocco. At first, it was the plea to Moroccans to spread positive energy.

When the team reached the quarter-final stage, it was about doing what an African team had hitherto done. Africans, Arabs and Muslims were invited along to the journey.

And in the aftermath of the victory, he mentioned that Morocco didn’t play like men, but women…the women’s team that reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year. In that moment any women that were not already on the ride immediately got on the ride, too.

In yesterday’s press conference, Regragui went one step further. He welcomed the whole world into the amazing journey. “We are now becoming the team that everyone loves in this World Cup because we are showing that even if you don’t have as much talent and money then you can succeed,” he said. “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. I think now the world is with Morocco.”

And he is right. Morocco has the world in their corner. The world is rooting for them, the loveable team that has shown there are no limits with hard work, drive and sacrifice.

Everyone likes an underdog story, and whatever happens tonight (whether it’s progressing to the final or third place play-off), Morocco are 180 minutes away from completing one of the ultimate sporting feel-good stories. The world is rooting for them – and with niya and positive energy, just as Regragui likes it.

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