Football Features

How Morocco compare to the greatest African teams in World Cup history

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 17:45, 17 December 2022

An entire continent was behind Morocco when they faced defending world champions France in the Qatar 2022 semi-final but it wasn’t meant to be.

At least for now, Africa’s wait for a World Cup finalist goes on. But in the span of 32 years, they’ve reduced the gap and it wouldn’t be a shock to see that glass ceiling smashed in the ensuing tournaments. Morocco’s run under Walid Regragui has been nothing short of inspirational.

Drawn in a group with Belgium, Croatia and Canada, very few saw Morocco escaping. But the Atlas Lions shocked everyone, and perhaps themselves, by inflicting a painful defeat on De Rode Duivels, all but setting in motion the end of their golden generation, before running out 2-1 winners over the returning Canucks.

Spain was expected to end this Cinderella story, but the 2010 winners proved to be all pass and no substance. Their meek penalties in the shootout led to another casualty, with Luis Enrique immediately stepping down in the aftermath. Portugal stepped up next but they also had no answer for Morocco’s stubborn yet effective tactical approach.

Youssef En-Nesyri’s winner sent Morocco to the semi-finals and an entire continent into raptures as history was made. Never before had an African team been this deep into a World Cup tournament. Heroes emerged overnight and their legacy is expected to be everlasting. The hope is this gets the juices flowing and inspires their neighbours and similar nations across the world.

“When you watch Rocky, you want to support Rocky Balboa because of his hard work and commitment and I think we’re the Rocky Balboa of this World Cup,” Regragui told reporters before the France game.

“We’re becoming the team that everyone loves at this World Cup because we’re showing that even if you don’t have as much talent if you show that desire, heart and belief, you can achieve. I’m sure many of you will say this is a miracle, but we’ve won without conceding against Belgium, Spain, and Portugal and that’s the result of hard work.”

As painful as losing to Didier Deschamps’ history-chasers was, the job wasn’t done. Morocco had the opportunity to leave with a bronze medal when they faced Croatia — both starting and finishing Qatar 2022 against each other. They were unable to grab onto this chance, falling to a 2-1 defeat. But fourth out of 32 isn’t bad going, especially when no one was talking about them heading into the competition.

Regragui’s men ended with four wins, one draw (before progressing via penalties) and two defeats. Despite opting for a pragmatic approach they finished having registered six goals — albeit four having come in the group phase — while conceding five times (including one own-goal).

With so many standouts, it’s hard to single out a single most impressive player but Azzedine Ounahi, who impressed Enrique following their Round of 16 meeting with Spain, is probably the closest for that accolade. That is not to lessen En-Nesyri’s contribution with the Sevilla marksman ending this campaign with three goals.

Despite the sour ending, they are still history-makers and have now raised the bar for African teams. But how does this impressive Moroccan class match up with previous tournament show-stealers? Given they were the fourth CAF quarter-finalist it’s only fair to look at those previous three for such a comparison.

Cameroon, 1990

  • Tournament progression: Quarter-finals (three wins and two losses)

The Indomitable Lions made their Fifa World Cup finals debut in 1982 when they were unable to escape the first group stage. Drawn in Group 1 alongside Poland, eventual champions Italy and Peru, Cameroon finished unbeaten having drawn all three games. Back-to-back goalless draws ended with a 1-1 stalemate with Gli Azzurri; their sole effort came via Grégoire M’Bida, a minute after Francesco Graziani had put the Europeans in front.

Starting on that day in Vigo was marksman Roger Milla, who returned to football’s grandest stage eight years later in Italy after being coaxed out of retirement. Milla witnessed François Omam-Biyik’s historic winner over defending champions Argentina in the curtain-raiser before registering a brace as Cameroon ran out 2-1 winners over Romania next time out.

Milla’s moment came in the Round of 16, where they encountered Colombia, a game that saw him famously robbing goalkeeper Rene Higuita of possession before finishing into an empty net. The 2-1 win made them the first Africans to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.

Heartbreak followed in Naples, though. Coming from a goal down against England, the Valery Nepomnyashchy-led side went 2-1 in front with 25 minutes remaining. But a pair of Gary Lineker penalties, the second coming in extra-time, extinguished their historic improbable run.

  • Goals scored: 7

Milla finished as Cameroon’s leading scorer with four goals and two behind overall Golden Boot winner Salvatore Schillaci. Eugène Ekéke, Emmanuel Kundé and Omam-Biyik all found the net once.

  • Goals conceded: 9

Cameroon’s only defeat within 90 minutes came in their final Group B game. Facing a Soviet Union side that had lost twice prior they were mauled 4-0 with Oleh Protasov, Andrei Zygmantovich, Oleksandr Zavarov and Igor Dobrovolski all registering a goal. Bernardo Redín, David Platt and Lineker breached their defence in the knockout round.

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  • Most Valuable Player

This was undoubtedly Milla’s tournament. Milla, aged 36, announced his retirement from international football in 1988 but two years later he received a phone call from the President of Cameroon, Paul Biya, who pleaded for a U-turn. Milla obliged and the rest was history. Due to his performances in Italy, he was once again named African Footballer of the Year. There was a gap of 14 years between this honour and his first. Milla also made the World Cup All-Star Team though placed in the reserves list.

  • Generational impact

Milla’s second goal celebration against Colombia — running to the corner flag and performing a dance — became iconic. It was even used by Coca-Cola in ads during the 2010 World Cup, the first time an African nation held the competition.

“It remains in our collective memory – it actually changed the perception the world had of African football,” Paulo Teixeira, a photographer at the tournament, told CNN in 2015.

“Milla dancing in front of the corner flag became a hit. It was an image of joy, of positive energy, communication through body language. Those goals put Cameroon, and ultimately African football, on the world map.”

Senegal, 2002

  • Tournament progression: Quarter-finals (two wins, two draws and one loss)

After repeated attempts, Senegal made their Fifa World Cup debut in 2002, the same year they finished as African Cup of Nations runners-up. Just like Cameroon a decade prior, the Lions of Teranga put the entire competition on notice when they inflicted an opening-day loss on defending champions France, who never truly recovered. Consecutive draws with Denmark and Uruguay ultimately saw them progress from the group stage. An extra-time win over Sweden followed but the shoe was on the other foot when Turkey needed an extra 30 minutes to eliminate Bruno Metsu’s side in the final eight.

  • Goals scored: 7

Papa Bouba Diop netted that famous winner against Les Bleus, and he would register two more in their final Group A meeting with Uruguay. He would finish as their leading scorer with Henri Camara one behind. Camara’s second effort of the championship was the Golden Goal against Sweden. Salif Diao was Senegal’s other goalscorer, the future Stoke City stalwart netting in their 1-1 draw with Denmark.

  • Goals conceded: 6

Half of the goals Senegal conceded were in that entertaining 3-3 stalemate with Uruguay. Jon Dahl Tomasson, Henrik Larsson and İlhan Mansız also managed to score past them. İlhan’s effort was the Golden Goal-winner for Turkey.

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  • Most Valuable Player

A number of Senegal’s players made lucrative transfers following their performances in Japan/Korea. Among them was El Hadji Diouf, who sealed a switch to Liverpool. Although the controversial forward never scored, he was undoubtedly a talismanic figure, with Sadio Mane once referring to him as the “best player in the history of our dear country.” Diouf was Senegal’s sole representative in their All-star team, lining up alongside Miroslav Klose, Ronaldo and Hasan Şaş as the forwards selected.

  • Generational impact

“We wanted to keep making waves like Cameroon had done with Roger Milla and Co when they made it to the quarter-finals in 1990,” Diouf later reminisced in an interview with FIFA. “We owed it to ourselves to create a bit of African and World Cup history, because you can say what you like, but Senegal’s win over France is the greatest victory the tournament has ever seen.”

Ghana 2010

  • Tournament progression: Quarter-finals (two wins, two draws and one loss)

Ghana had made their World Cup finals debut four years earlier when they reached the Round of 16, progressing from a group including the Czech Republic, United States and eventual winners Italy. But a date with Brazil — featuring a record-chasing Ronaldo — in the first knockout round proved to be a bridge too far. The four-time African champions would go one better on continental soil.

A win over Serbia was followed by a draw with Australia before Germany eked out a slender victory at Ghana’s expense. It was still enough for progression, and with their Round of 16 meeting with the USA heading for extra time, Ghana pulled off a very late winner. Uruguay then stood between them and history. That infamous game will forever be remembered for Luis Suárez’s controversial handball at the end of extra time. It went to penalties and the South Americans triumphed 4-2.

  • Goals scored: 5

Milovan Rajevac’s side wasn’t the most prolific all competition, although the majority of their goals came after the group stage. Asamoah Gyan was the Black Stars’ top scorer with three goals. Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari also found the net in South Africa.

  • Goals conceded: 4

Ghana kept one clean sheet, which came in their opening game against Serbia, though no side managed to score more than once past them in a single game. Brett Holman, Mesut Özil, Landon Donovan and Diego Forlán were the four to celebrate a goal past them.

  • Most Valuable Player

Gyan and it’s not close. His treble remains the most a Ghanaian player has scored in a World Cup finals.

  • Generational impact

Ghana’s run unfortunately will be remembered for how it ended and the controversy that surrounded their quarter-final finish. Dominic Adiyiah’s header deep into extra time was going in but for Suárez’s blatant handball. Gyan subsequently missed the following spot-kick as it hit the crossbar.

“It was the single most painful experience for many Ghanaian football fans to date. Just the emotion of thinking Ghana were through to the semis and blowing it was devastating,” Michael Oti Adjei, a sports journalist, told the Independent.