Nerveless Hakimi fires Morocco into uncharted territory at World Cup

Published December 7th, 2022 - 04:45 GMT
Morocco's defender #02 Achraf Hakimi (L) converts during the penalty shoot-out to win the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between Morocco and Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 6, 2022. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)
Morocco's defender #02 Achraf Hakimi (L) converts during the penalty shoot-out to win the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between Morocco and Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 6, 2022. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)

If Achraf Hakimi was feeling the weight of expectation on his shoulders as he stepped up to take a history-making penalty for Morocco against Spain, he did not show it.

The defender showed nerves of steel to dink the ball over goalkeeper Unai Simon and seal a 3-0 shootout win over the hapless Spaniards, after the match finished goalless on Tuesday.

The Madrid-born Paris Saint-Germain player steered Morocco into uncharted territory, with the north African side becoming the first from the Arab world to reach the last eight at a World Cup.

Wild celebrations erupted in Morocco and across Europe as the diaspora rejoiced, from Paris to Brussels to Barcelona, while other African and Arab countries felt buoyed by their success.

Although coach Walid Regragui prefers to credit the team rather than individuals, Hakimi is one of his standout players.

A dynamic, explosive presence, he is fond of lung-bursting sprints to join the attack, while maintaining discipline in defence.

Hakimi trained with Spain at youth level, before deciding to pledge his allegiance to the country of his parents.

"I also went to the Spanish national team to try it," he told Spanish newspaper Marca before the game.

"I was at Las Rozas for a couple of days and I saw that it wasn't the right place for me, I didn't feel at home.

"It wasn't because of anything in particular, but for what I felt, because it was not what I had at home, which is the Arab culture, being Moroccan. I wanted to be here."

Those family bonds have played an important role in sustaining Morocco's historic charge.

A photograph of Hakimi, 24, kissing his mother in the stands after their 2-0 group stage win over Belgium made waves on social media.

The team's families have been allowed to stay in close proximity and it lets the players feel the love which in many cases led to them choosing to play for Morocco.

As well as Hakimi, several other players were born elsewhere but opted for the North African nation.

"For me, my mum is the most important thing in my life," an elated Sofiane Boufal -- born in Paris -- said after beating Spain.

"Of course (she was crying), the emotions in this game make you crazy. The support of your family is the most important thing."

Rising up

Hakimi came from a modest family, living in the Madrid suburb of Getafe.

His mother cleaned houses, while his father was a street vendor.

"I fight every day for them," said Hakimi in 2018. "They sacrificed themselves for me, they deprived my brothers of many things, for me to succeed."

Hakimi made his Morocco debut back in 2016, while still a Real Madrid player, winning the Champions League with Los Blancos but never fully establishing himself.

He was loaned for two years to Borussia Dortmund and then signed permanently for Inter Milan. After a strong season in Italy, winning Serie A, PSG snapped him up in 2021.

With a Ligue 1 title in his pocket, Hakimi arrived with Morocco at the World Cup willing to perform the job the team needed him to do despite his star status.

Hakimi has occasionally thrilled in Qatar, setting up Youssef En-Nesyri with a perfectly weighted pass against Canada, but has also helped form part of the strongest defence at the World Cup.

Morocco's only goal conceded came in that 2-1 win over Canada, while they shut out 2018 runners-up Croatia, plus fancied Belgium and Spain.

Winger Hakim Ziyech has also drawn praise after returning from a period of exile due to a falling out with the previous coach, but through thick and thin, Hakimi has been there for his country.

Now, packed densely into stadiums in Doha and supporting from afar, Hakimi's people are there for him too.

By Rik Sharma
AFP


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