“Why not aim for the sky?” Walid Regragui was already halfway there. His magnificent Morocco players had celebrated their moment of history by hurtling the manager up into the Doha night as Al Thumama Stadium reverberated to a deep red beat of disbelieving joy.
Once he’d returned to earth and had the briefest moment to consider this night of nights, the manager who steadfastly believed now had a simple message: let’s go further. In roaring to the top of Group F, the Atlas Lions had bridged a 36-year gap to return to the knockout stages of a World Cup. But it means so much more both in the here and now of Qatar 2022 and in the future to come.
Morocco are the second African side safely through to the last 16 and could yet be joined by two more. In the first World Cup in the Arab world, they are one of the most exhilarating stories of the tournament who also happen to be an Arab nation. Their bandwagon, you sense, will be heaving by the time it pulls up to Education City next Tuesday.
But there’s something else: they are managed by one of their own. Regragui may be less than three months in the role but he has followed Senegal and Aliou Cissé safely through these first two weeks. For the first time in the long history of this tournament, Africa had arrived with five teams managed by five African managers, every nation with their own countryman at the helm. Rigobert Song and Cameroon and Otto Addo’s Ghana could yet make it a record four African nations among the final 16 still here.
For a time, and not a short one, one of the hallmarks of this tournament was that every four years, African nations would turn up and in the dugout would be a chosen one from a spinning carousel of familiar white faces. A continent where too often mercenary European coaches would hop around from role to role.
Qatar 2022 is in the process of changing all that — in a big way. Regragui, gregarious and illuminating in equal measure as he switches through Arabic dialects, French and English, can join Cissé and others as poster boys for the other way of doing things.
“Some believed in us, others didn’t,” said Regragui after watching his richly talented side devour Canada in the first half before resolutely holding out in the second. "But we were keen to show that Africa is there. Because Africa is criticized a lot. We have good coaches, good players here.
"Just as we said at the beginning, we set ourselves an objective: to give everything we've got and get out of the group stage. So why not aim for the sky? Why not dream about lifting that trophy. We know that African teams need to be able to set these objectives. We’re realistic but we know what we’re worth. We’re capable of great things, inshallah.”
Sat beside him was Achraf Hakimi, a lion apart as Canada tried to turn the screw and right all their self-inflicted wrongs from a dismal first half. But the PSG defender is far, far from alone. Regragui’s appointment in August, replacing 70-year-old former Algeria and Ivory Coast manager Vahid Halilhodžić, meant a return for the exiled Hakim Ziyech. The Chelsea winger was excellent here.
He devoured a blunder from Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan, a brilliant lob sending the partisan crowd wild. They stayed loud as Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri buried a second on 23 minutes. An own goal and an interval reset gave Canada a foothold and in the second half they came battling back at the Moroccans.
Regragui said the second half pleased him more as his side showed their deep resolve. They’ve had half the xG of all three group stage opponents but emerge undefeated. Right back Hakimi led by example, shutting down Alphonso Davies and Tajon Buchanan. Captain Romain Saiss was a rock in the middle and Sofyan Amrabat a constant protective presence in front of the defence. There was a brief hairy moment when an Atiba Hutchison header crashed off the bar and down on to the line but never fully crossing it.
They held out to record back-to-back wins, to top the group with two points to spare and help send Belgium, the second-ranked team in the world crashing out in humility.
“Morocco are a top team and they have World Cup experience now,” said defeated coach John Herdman. “They’ve got the mentality and the spirit, you can see it. They showed resilience and grit tonight.”
The noise from those massed inside Al Thumama never let up all night. Now they will become the beacon for so many Arab fans still here in Qatar. They hurtle into the tournament’s nitty gritty feeling like a team carrying a bit of destiny as well as all those dreams. So much of which is down to Regragui.
“The guy who is near to me did an amazing job,” said Hakimi, who soldiered on through injury until his body could take no more. “He hasn’t had time to do his thing but he has created a great group. We trust in him. It’s amazing what we have done.
“The first day we arrived here we said it was a moment to change our mentality to change our generation. This generation deserves to make history. Today we made history.”
: Borjan 4, Johnston 5, Miller 4, Vitoria 5, Adekugbe 6 (Kone 60); Hoilett 5, Kaye 4 (Hutchinson 60), Osorio 6 (Laryea 65); Buchanan, Larin 6 (David 60), Davies.
Booked: Osorio, Hoilett (Wotherspoon 75), Adekugbe, Vitoria.
: Bono 7; Hakimi 7 (Jabrane 85), Aguerd 6, Saiss, Mazraoui; Ounahi 6 (El Yamiq 77), Amrabat, Sabiri 6 (Amallah 65); Ziyech 7 (Hamdallah 76), En-Nesyri, Boufal 5 (Aboukhlal 65).
: Raphael Claus (Brazil)