A week ago, few people in soccer had heard of Walid Regragui.
He was a regular for Morocco back when Morocco wasn’t much good. After retiring, he coached a few small teams in Africa.
Three months ago, after the country had already qualified for the World Cup, the Moroccan federation got into a tiff with its Bosnian coach. He ended up getting fired. Regragui was drafted in to replace him.
He was given the 34th-ranked team in the world. He patched up relations with a couple of alienated stars. He fiddled a bit with the formations. Then he came to Qatar and drew Croatia and beat Belgium.
According to reports, the Belgians were so upset by the loss that three of the team’s stars got into a shoving match in the dressing room afterward.
Canada vs. Morocco updates: Morocco defeat Canada 2-1
So now Regragui is the genius who cracked the No. 2-ranked team in the world. He spoke for a half-hour on Wednesday ahead of his team’s Thursday match with Canada. He provided no bulletin-board material. He said very little of substance. He oozed class.
Alongside him sat pie-eyed 18-year-old Bilal El Khannouss. Unless something very wrong happens, El Khannouss will not see a moment on the field at this World Cup. Being introduced to the world media in this way was his World Cup.
“I’m like everyone’s little brother,” El Khannouss said, while the coach massaged his shoulder paternally.
A lot has been made here and more will be made in the next four years over what sort of team the Canadian men’s program should look like.
Morocco – that’s who Canada should look like.
Canada is never going to be Germany, or Belgium, or Croatia. It’s not that we don’t have the same talent or infrastructure (though we don’t yet have either of those things). What we lack is an obsessive, organic connection to the game.
“We are a football country, and you can’t deny that,” Canadian coach John Herdman said on Wednesday. “No one can.”
If by football country, he means a country where football is played, and sometimes well, then sure. If he means a football country like Italy is a football country, then I can emphatically deny that. It makes for good sloganeering – one of Herdman’s great talents – but it’s never going to be strictly true.
Canadian kids play soccer in leagues. Kids in football countries play the game everywhere.
Miscues cost Canada in 2-1 loss to Morocco at World Cup
You drive around downtown Rio de Janeiro and young people are playing soccer at two in the morning, because that’s when you can get an empty slot on a lighted pitch. They aren’t waiting around for their parents to drive them to a park. They play wherever they can. That culture is not being recreated in Canada.
Morocco has some similar problems, as well as some similar advantages. It doesn’t have an ideal climate for the game. It doesn’t have a lot of money. It doesn’t have world-class infrastructure.
What Morocco has is a lot of pride and a large diaspora. El Khannouss was born in, lives in and plays in Belgium. The team’s two world-class stars are Dutch-born and Dutch-developed (Hakim Ziyech), and Spanish-born and Spanish-developed (Achraf Hakimi).
The Moroccans understand they need to outsource their development. Let Europeans do the hard work for a profit motive, so that they can get the patriotic benefit for free.
If Canada is to thrive in the next four years, it will be because more of its players are making good in Europe’s top leagues. The Canadian national set-up doesn’t have much, or anything, to do with that.
Another thing we might learn from the Moroccans – at a World Cup, all that matters is results.
If I hear the word “learnings” from the Canadian camp one more time, I won’t do anything. I’m not the grammar police. But learnings is not a word.
Don’t tell Canadians that. They learnings’d so much here that their skulls must be in danger of bursting.
“But then there’s other learnings and that learnings is that we’ve taken them, that you can use from game to game and after you learn …” Herdman said.
Stop. Please. I confess. I’ll sign anything. Just stop saying that.
On Wednesday, Herdman and defender Steven Vitoria were still going on about how they’ve changed the country, and made history, and how awesome that first goal was.
“That was a big one,” Vitoria said.
It’s great that Canada scored, but it also lost. By a lot.
The goal deserved acknowledgment in the moment, and right after, and maybe even the day after that. But three days later with another game still to be played, the only sort of history it should be is ancient.
You don’t see other countries here waving their hands over their head like they’ve just landed on the moon because they only lost by three. Considering they haven’t actually accomplished anything but reaching the most basic standard, there is an odd air of self-congratulation about this team. Maybe it’s a North American thing, and we just don’t notice it until we’re surrounded by everyone else in the world.
All that matters now is a result against Morocco. Morocco gets that. It has to beat Canada to ensure advancement.
Moroccan journalists kept lobbing softballs up at Regragui, inviting him to take a victory lap on behalf the team, the program and himself. And they’re right – what he’s managed is remarkable.
After one particularly gushing inquiry, Regragui said, “Let’s see if I’m still a good coach after tomorrow.”
He knows that however quickly things have gone right for him, they can go wrong just as fast.
When those same softballs were lobbed up at Herdman, he swung every time.
Canada was top of global mind after giving Belgium a hard time. It was less so after Morocco spanked Belgium, and much less so after it got carpet-bombed by Croatia. If Canada loses again, this World Cup wasn’t a great Canadian success story anywhere but in the TV ratings.
Someone asked Herdman what comes next for him. He played it coy.
“I’ve done 11 years in this country, 11 great years,” Herdman said. “I’m looking forward to 2026.”
You know something Canada should try looking forward to? Being a little less like Canada, and a little more like Morocco. On Thursday, we’ll find out how focused it is on that goal.