FIFA – Regragui: Lifting 2026 World Cup is a realistic goal

Having defied all expectations to reach the semi-final stage of Qatar 2022, Morocco and their coach Walid Regragui will have just one question about going the whole way at 2026: why not?

“Why shouldn’t we dream of winning the World Cup™? Let’s pass that idea on to future generations, and let’s believe in it.”

Those were Morocco coach Walid Regragui’s words after his side qualified for the Round of 16 at Qatar 2022. His statement was ridiculed by some; most others thought it was a hopeless dream.

That viewpoint soon changed when the Atlas Lions progressed to the quarter-finals, and even more so when they reached the last four of the competition. By then, observers were taking what he said seriously, especially given his side’s well-organised and tactically perfect wins over Belgium, Spain and Portugal.

One thing was for sure: if Morocco did come up short at Qatar 2022, they would have laid foundations to be serious contenders by 2026.

An average age that favours future progress

It’s hard to believe that the squad that has shown so much character at this World Cup has an average age of just 26 years and two months, with most of their key players under the age of 27 and many younger substitutes on the bench ready to pick up the mantle of the squad’s elder statesmen.

Credit must be given to former coach Vahid Halilhodzic for building a young team with such a depth of talent. After all, he gave a lot of these players their first senior caps, including Azzedine Ounahi, who caught the eye with his sparking display against Spain.

But how old will Morocco’s more established stars be in 2026? Even there, the signs are positive. Yassine Bounou will be 35, while Nayef Aguerd, Selim Amallah, Sofyan Amrabat, Youssef En-Nesyri, and Noussair Mazraoui will be around 30, arguably the peak age for footballers to combine their ability with experience.

Mohammed VI Football Academy

Everyone talks about the ASPIRE Academy for Sports Excellence and the contribution it has made to the development of sport in Qatar, but what they may not know is that the Mohammed VI Football Academy, established in 2009, has helped discover and develop talent all over Morocco.

The academy, which has all the latest training facilities, has now seen multiple generations pass through its doors, facilitating transfers to European clubs for talented young players. A number of the current Morocco squad attended the academy, most notably Aguerd, En-Nesyri and Ounahi.

Its continuous work ensures more and more talented players will be discovered, developed and get the chance to move to Europe, something which is sure to work in Moroccan football’s favour.

A fearless approach

Morocco have more than lived up to their nickname in Qatar, their courageous performances earning them admirers from around the football world and more than worthy of the title Atlas Lions.

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A goalless draw against 2018 runners-up Croatia and a hard-fought victory over Belgium helped earn Morocco a spot in the knockout rounds, where they began by upsetting 2010 champions Spain. Easing to victory over Cristiano Ronaldo’s star-studded Portugal in the quarter-finals was the final coup in a run that showed Regragui’s men feared nobody.

Club career catalysts

Moroccan stars have developed at an astonishing rate at leading European sides in recent years. Achraf Hakimi joined Paris Saint-Germain, Hakim Ziyech went to Chelsea, Mazraoui to Bayern Munich, and Bounou and En-Nesyri to Sevilla. It would appear more are set to follow, with top European clubs interested in the likes of Sofyan Amrabat, Ounahi and Aguerd.

Playing for major European clubs has enabled Moroccan players to develop technically, physically and, most importantly, mentally, banishing any fear they may have had about facing the world’s biggest stars at the World Cup.

It was this last factor, stubborn confidence, that made the difference for the Atlas Lions in 2022, setting them apart from other Arab teams like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

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