france have perfected the art of pragmatism. They absorb pressure, defend in numbers, lure their prey in, then strike in the blink of an eye. sometimes, as England found out, they only need a couple of dominant spells. Such is life when you have Kylian Mbappé waiting to streak away on the counterattack, Antoine Griezmann finding little pockets of space and Olivier Giroud – still underrated, still going strong – waiting for an opportunity to fall his way in the penalty area.
It has been a winning formula for Didier Deschamps, whose team are two victories away from becoming the first country since Brazil in 1962 to retain the World Cup. France’s head coach does not worry about having more possession than the other team. Deschamps does not talk about having a philosophy. He thinks about the best way to win.
On Wednesday night, though France face a conundrum: how to breach opponents who will give them the ball and trust in the tournament’s best defense to hold firm. Morocco, the first African side to reach the semi-finals, stood in their way and are likely to take some budging. The underdogs will be roared on by thousands of supporters at Al Bayt Stadium, where a hostile atmosphere is bound to test the courage of the France players, and they are surely not going to open up now. Entertaining neutrals is not Morocco’s priority. They have played eight and a half hours of football, faced three penalties in their shootout win over Spain and still the only goal they have conceded came when Nayef Aguerd put the ball into his own net against Canada.
Patience, as the France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris acknowledged, is going to be key. Part of the problem for the world champions is that Morocco, supremely drilled by Walid Regragui, are effective. They will look to their brilliant right-back Achraf Hakimi to set aside his friendship with his Paris Saint-Germain clubmate Mbappé. There will be responsibility on the tireless Sofyan Amrabat to pin down Griezmann, who was so impressive against England, and Bono to perform more wonders in goal. They will be praying that Aguerd, Romain Saïss and Noussair Mazraoui are fit to play in defence, and that they are not too weary after beating Portugal 1-0 in the quarterfinals.
But Morocco, who topped a group containing Belgium and Croatia, will also look to lure France into a trap before springing forward on the break. As Lloris pointed out, they have a strong midfield and creative threats from Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal. Youssef En-Nesyri, who scored the winner against Portugal, is a dangerous runner up front. “They’re not just good in defence,” Deschamps warned. “They wouldn’t have reached the semis if they were just a defensive team.”
The onus will be on France to assert themselves, to control possession and stretch the play, for Theo Hernandez and Jules Koundé to push up from the full-back positions. Griezmann, playing as a No 10 these days, will have to succeed where Kevin De Bruyne, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva failed. Mbappé will have to win his duel with Hakimi.
Yet an upset is not out of the question. Memories of France’s colonial past in Morocco will lend the occasion an extra edge in the stands. Regragui, who grew up in a suburb just outside Paris, is ready. “We want Africa to be on top of the world,” he said. “We are not the favourites. You may say I am crazy, but a bit of craziness is good.
“We are not here to kid around and we are not tired. We want to rewrite the history books for our brothers in north Africa, for Egyptians, Libyans – all those who dreamed of seeing an African team in a semi-final. I don’t want to wait another 40 years to give another African team a chance. I’m a bit crazy; a bit of a dreamer.”
Regragui was in a lively mood. He wasn’t ready to hear any accusations that his team’s style is boring. “This idea of possession, it is amazing you journalists love these figures of 50-60%,” he said. “That doesn’t matter if you have one shot. Expected goals don’t mean anything.
“If they allow us possession we will keep the ball but I don’t think they will allow us to do that. We are here to win. If you give points to teams with most possession, it would change the game. Guardiola was my hero for a long time, I wanted to play possession football. When you have De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, that is possible.
“A lot of European journalists have criticized our style. 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. There isn’t one way of winning. We had 0.01% chance of winning the World Cup at the outset. Now we have 0.03. But we are going to try and destroy statistics.”
Try arguing with that. For Morocco, it is about being effective. The dilemma, though, is that France also have little time for romance. When Deschamps was asked about number-crunching in football, he wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. Sometimes, he said, you have to ignore the stats and trust your eyes. Essentially Deschamps was saying that he does not give two hoots if people criticize his side’s refusal to play fantasy football. France will simply believe they can find a way to win.