Walid Regragui: The ‘crazy’ coach who convinced Morocco to follow his World Cup dream

Regragui has united Morocco, Africa and the Arab world with character, determination and a capacity to upset the odds – and his team are not done yet

Richard Jolly
in Doha
Wednesday 14 December 2022 07:18 GMT
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“You may say I am mad, crazy, but a bit of craziness is good,” Walid Regragui said. His has been a beautiful brand of madness for Morocco. His craziness has been catalytic. He is the dreamer who has changed a continent, the manager who talks about history and may alter footballing history forever.

In Morocco, Africa has its first World Cup semi-finalists. If the relentlessly demanding Regragui has his way, a man with a sense of boundless possibilities will be back again for more motivational speaking ahead of a still bigger game.

“We came into the tournament with great ambition to change mindsets in our continent,” he said. “If we say we are happy to reach the semi-final, many people would say that is a success but I don’t agree. We are one of the best four teams in the world now. Why not reach the final of the World Cup? I know we are not the favourites but we are very ambitious and hungry. We are determined to rewrite the history books. We want Africa to be on top of the world.”

An African Champions League winner in May, he has become Africa’s greatest champion. He is also the Parisian who faces France in a World Cup semi-final. Regragui represents part of a bigger story, of the Moroccan diaspora, of the immigrant experience. It is a twist in the tale of the dual nationals at this stage of World Cups: France’s victories in 1998 and 2018 would have been inconceivable without players of African heritage.

If Kylian Mbappe is one boy from the banlieues who has come a long way, Regragui is another. “Yes, I was from a difficult neighbourhood and sometimes you have to fight harder to get somewhere,” said a man who played for Morocco before managing them. “Sometimes where you come from can help people, it can motivate you.”

Morocco have 14 players born abroad, from goalkeeper Bono in Montreal to right-back Achraf Hakimi in Madrid and captain Romain Saiss in France. “When you play for the national team, you are Moroccan,” Regragui said. “I didn’t establish quotas, I just brought in players who I thought could do something for the team.”

They have done so with a team that Regragui believes is reminiscent of a club, aided by his decision to integrate the players’ families. “It is an opportunity to show our culture and to show how close we are to our mothers and wives,” he said.

He has been part manager, part ambassador. As a country, Morocco has not benefited from the highest profile. It has been raised over the last three weeks. “We have an image of the country that we want to spread because the World Cup is the best shop window,” he added. “We are a welcoming people, we are generous. We don’t always expect something in return, some people may see that as a weakness but I see that as a strength.”

Hitting new heights: Walid Regragui celebrates with his Morocco players after their quarter-final win over Portugal
Hitting new heights: Walid Regragui celebrates with his Morocco players after their quarter-final win over Portugal (Getty)

That generosity does not extend to their defending. No opponent has scored against Morocco yet during this World Cup. They have been branded defensive. Regragui sees them more as streetwise. He has united his country, not to mention Africa and the Arab world, with character and determination and a capacity to upset the odds. “The idea I have of football is that it brings people together, it galvanises people,” he said. Morocco don’t play tiki-taka but as a host of elite European teams, from Belgium and Croatia to Spain and Portugal, can testify, they are hard to beat. There are different ways to win and Morocco’s are very much within the current rules.

“I ask Mr Infantino, if you give points to teams with most possession, it would change the game,” said Regragui. “[Pep] Guardiola was my hero for a long time. I wanted to keep the ball, play possession football, and when you have Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva, that is possible. A lot of European journalists have criticised our style of play; they don’t like to see an African team play cleverly. They think African teams used to be fun but get knocked out. Those days are over now.”

France manager Didier Deschamps believes Morocco have the best defence in the World Cup. The facts and figures, showing they have only allowed nine shots on target, support his theory. By many of the other markers, they are not one of the finest sides. Regragui was scathing. “I don’t really care about expected goals and possession,” he said. “We had 0.01 per cent chance of winning the World Cup at the outset. Now we have 0.03 per cent chance but we are going to try and destroy statistics. You may think I am crazy. I don’t want to wait another 40 years to give another African team a chance. Yes, I am a bit crazy, a bit of a dreamer.”

But with each victory, his craziness becomes more sane, his imaginings more real, his impossible dream more plausible. If Morocco win the World Cup then Regragui won’t be a madman, but the manager who has sprung perhaps the greatest shock of all.

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