How Regragui has orchestrated Morocco’s football fairy tale

DOHA, Qatar — Fatima Regragui is in her late 60s. When her son Walid was a professional player — he had spells in the French leagues with teams such as Toulouse and Ajaccio, while also making 45 appearances for Morocco — she never traveled anywhere to see him in action. Not even when he was playing in Paris, where she lives, and where Walid was born 47 years ago. Not once.

Yet she has been in Doha since the start of the FIFA World Cup, looked after by the Moroccan FA like all the visiting families of players and staff. And it’s fair to say that she has been her son’s lucky charm.

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Walid Regragui’s story in this tournament is a football fairy tale. Eight months ago, when the Atlas Lions qualified for Qatar 2022, the former right-back would never have imagined that he’d have sat on the bench of the national team during the tournament. There had been rumors about him replacing Vahid Halilhodzic at the helm, but they never went further. Yet on Wednesday, he will face Didier Deschamps’ France for a place in the World Cup final.

Regragui grew up on the Montconseil council estate in Corbeil-Essonnes, in the suburbs to the south of Paris. His dad was a builder, who asked his son only to do well at school. So Walid did. He was smart, earning his baccalaureate degree before going to a university to study economics.

Meanwhile, his career took off in the lower leagues, beginning in the fifth division and progressing all the way to Ligue 1; it started with Rudi Garcia, the former Lille, AS Roma and Lyon manager, who began his managerial career years ago in Corbeil.

“Rudi changed my life,” Regragui said. “I was 19 when he coached me and told me that I could become pro.”

On Wednesday, Garcia will be in the commentary box for French television at the Al Bayt Stadium for his friend’s most important game.

For all the people who know Regragui or have met him during his playing career — including France striker Oliver Giroudwho enjoyed one preseason training camp with him in 2007 at Grenoble — it was never in doubt that the Parisian was going to be a manager after he stopped playing.

“He was highly intelligent, way above average. And he was liked by every player in every dressing room. His social skills were fantastic,” said Roland Courbis, who managed him at Ajaccio.

Those social skills — Regragui also speaks French, Arabic and English — are what enabled him to bring back Hakim Ziyech other Noussair Mazraoui to the national team. Both of them had refused to play under Halilhodzic. After a chat with Regragui, they came back and are vital cogs in this fantastic adventure.

Before taking on Morocco following Halilhodzic’s exit, Regragui won the African Champions League with WAC Casablanca, defeating Al-Ahly 2-0 in May. It was a form of self-validation that he was ready for more. Even though he didn’t expect to replace Halilhodzic in August so close to the start of the World Cup, he took the opportunity with open arms.

It’s worth noting there was no immediate pressure on Regragui to excel in Qatar: the only thing mentioned in his contract was a goal of reaching at least the semifinals at the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations. Initially, the World Cup was seen as a bonus, but not anymore.

Out of the 26 players called up by the manager, 14 weren’t born in Morocco, and some even played at the youth level for the countries of their births (Canada, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain and Italy) before choosing to represent the nation of their parents or grandparents. Regragui’s success comes down to how he’s been able to unite these players and make this squad gel.

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Craig Burley is full of praise for Morocco’s performance and resilience after they become the first African team to make it to a World Cup semifinal.

“We are a real team, a real squad, where everyone fights for each other and that’s all down to him,” playmaker Sofiane Boufal told ESPN.

Morocco lost two starters in Imran Louza other Amine Harit — the latter arrived in Doha on Monday to support the team — through injury before the tournament, which was a huge blow, but Regragui regrouped everyone and found the right replacements and solutions.

His defensive-minded 4-3-3 formation is solid and his squad is well-drilled, with every man understanding his role. Morocco boast the best defense of the competition, conceding just one goal in five games, and with the ball, they rely heavily on Boufal and Ziyech. But it works and they will not change anything.

There is no doubt that Regragui is destined for great things as a manager. After Morocco, he is targeting a job in Ligue 1, but right now there is still a trophy to win. Regragui and his players made history by becoming the first African country to reach the semifinals of a World Cup.

Now Fatima, and all the other mothers and relatives of this exceptional squad, are determined to come home with the trophy.

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