Morocco has 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 ever nation to reach the final four of the tournament.
To reach the semifinal stage, Morocco has beaten European heavyweights Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
Now the Atlas Lions face the best Europe has to offer – world champion France.
After Morocco defeated Portugal, head coach 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 now the world is with Morocco.”
Morocco has certainly punched above its weight at Qatar 2022, in part thanks to the team’s “12th man” in the stands.
Thousands of Moroccans live in Doha and thousands more have made the short trip across the Middle East to support their nation, creating a unceasing din at every match.
After the win against Portugal, Morocco’s national airline Royal Air Maroc (RAM) said it was offering nearly 30 flights to Doha ahead of the game against France, state-run news agency MAP reported Monday.
Add to those fans, the support of Africans and Arabs from across the globe and the goodwill of a planet looking for the World Cup’s own Rocky Balboa to throw two more knockout punches in this tournament and there is a growing sense that France will not be playing in the Al Bayt Stadium in Doha but rather in the Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca.
The Atlas Lions are also being powered by perhaps the most unlikely of sources; their moms.
After both Morocco’s wins against Spain and Portugal, players like Achraf Hakimi and Sofiane Boufal have been pictured kissing or dancing with their mothers.
Their presence followed Regragui’s decision to invite players’ families to stay with the team in Doha. Regragui’s own mom has been present throughout the tournament, a first for Fatima.
“During his whole career as a player and as a coach, I never traveled to watch him,” she told Moroccan broadcaster Arriyadia.
“I’ve been living in France for more than 50 years now and this is the first competition that I left Paris for.”
If fans want to see tears of joy instead of sadness after the game, then Morocco will have to do something it has 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 has been at its menacing best, dispelling all the doubts that hung 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 grinding out a win against England in the quarterfinals.
Kylian Mbappé has once again been the star of the show and the top scorer of the tournament has underlined his position as the heir to the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player in the world.
But against England, France showed that it has plenty of other threats aside from the Paris Saint-Germain forward.
Antoine Griezmann has reinvented himself as a midfielder and was instrumental in the win against England, crossing for another unlikely hero, Giroud, to head home the winner.
Like Griezmann, Giroud has had a renaissance this World Cup. After failing to score a single goal in 2018 and with Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema then returning to the team, it looked at one point that Giroud might never play for France again.
Since then, he has scored four goals at the World Cup – only one behind Mbappé – and has become France’s all-time record goalscorer.
And the rest of France’s players will need to be at their best as Mbappé lines up against not only the world’s best right back, but also his closest friend, Hakimi.
The pair play together for PSG and have become inseparable over the last year, making Hakimi the perfect candidate to stop his mercurial friend.
But no love will be lost when the pair play on Wednesday, something that Mbappé said long before the tournament.
In January, when the PSG team was in Doha, Mbappé made the prediction that he would play his friend.
“France, Tunisia I hope we will win and after, we will play against Morocco and I have to destroy my friend [Hakimi],” he said in a video filmed by BeIN Sports. “That will break my heart a little bit but it’s football. It’s what it is, I have to kill him.”
Hakimi responded by saying: “I have to kick him.”
Mbappé and company will have to be at their ruthless best if they are to get past this resolute Moroccan side and reach the final.