Morocco has experienced a World Cup fairytale like no other.
Already the most successful African team in World Cup history, the Atlas Lions become the first nation ever to reach the final four of the tournament.
To reach the semifinals, Morocco defeated European heavyweights Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
Now the Atlas Lions face the best Europe has to offer: world champions 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 look at ‘Rocky’ you want to support Rocky Balboa and I think we are the ‘Rocky’ of this World Cup,” Regragui said. “I think the world is with Morocco now.”
Morocco certainly punched above its weight at Qatar 2022, thanks in part to the team’s “12th man” in the stands.
Thousands of Moroccans live in Doha and thousands more have made the short journey across the Middle East to support their country, creating an unrelenting clamor at every game.
Following the victory over Portugal, Morocco’s flag carrier, Royal Air Maroc (RAM), said it would offer nearly 30 flights to Doha ahead of the game against France, state news agency MAP reported Monday.
Add to those fans the support of Africans and Arabs from around the world and the goodwill of a planet looking for World Cup own Rocky Balboa to land two more knockout punches in this tournament and there is a growing sense that France will not play at the Al Bayt Stadium in Doha but rather at the Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca.
The Atlas Lions are also powered by perhaps the most unlikely sources; their mothers.
Following both of Morocco’s victories against Spain and Portugal, players such as 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 mother was present throughout the tournament, a first for Fatima.
“Throughout his career as a player and as a coach, I never traveled to see him,” she told Moroccan broadcaster Arriyadia.
“I’ve lived in France for over 50 years now and this is the first race I’m leaving 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 countries, Morocco and France have only played five times, with Morocco losing four times and drawing once.
France have been at their best and dispelled any doubts that hung over the 2018 World Cup champions.
Despite missing out on at least five key players, the French have emerged as strong contenders to retain their title after beating England in the quarter-finals.
Kylian Mbappé has once again been the star of the show and the tournament’s top scorer 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 besides the Paris Saint-Germain striker.
Reinventing himself as a midfielder, Antoine Griezmann was instrumental in the victory against England, crossing over to another unlikely hero, Giroud, to lead home the winner.
Like Griezmann, Giroud experienced a renaissance this World Cup. After failing to score a single goal in 2018 and Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema returning to the team, it looked like Giroud would never play for France again.
Since then, he has scored four goals in the World Cup – just one behind Mbappé – and has become France’s all-time top goalscorer.
And the rest of the French players will have to be at their best, as Mbappé is up against not only the world’s best right-back, but also his best friend, Hakimi.
Playing together for PSG, the pair have become inseparable over the past year, making Hakimi the perfect candidate to stop his mercurial friend.
But no love will be lost when the pair play on Wednesday, something Mbappé said long before the tournament.
In January, when the PSG team was in Doha, Mbappé made the prediction that he would play against his friend.
“France, Tunisia, I hope we win and then we 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 bit, but it’s football. It is 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 best to get past this determined Moroccan side and reach the final.
France vs Morocco: 2pm ET
USA: Fox Sports
Brazil: Sports TV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media