It has been some World Cup for the African nations.
England will bid to reach the last eight in Doha when they face Senegal, who have reached the knockout stages of the World Cup for the second time, previously doing so in their first appearance in 2002.
Four years ago in Russia, all five nations hailing from the continent were eliminated in the group stages, accumulating eight points collectively, but in Qatar there has been a wonderful resurgence in this World Cup of shocks. Cameroon fell spectacularly short despite shocking five-time champions Brazil in the final act of the group stages.
Morocco contributed seven points alone to the 24 in total in the group stages this time around, featuring in the knockout stages of the World Cup for only a second time, also reaching the round of 16 in 1986, losing 1-0 to Germany that year.
They face Spain next Tuesday in their second ever World Cup meeting to compete for a place in the quarter-finals – in the first, in the 2018 group stages, Morocco twice took the lead before drawing 2-2, with Iago Aspas scoring a last-minute Spain equaliser.
Ahead of their latest battle, Sky Sports’ Ben Grounds spoke to award-winning African football journalist Usher Komugisha to discuss the chances of Morocco and Senegal heading into the round of 16….
‘Morocco’s success is not coming from the sky’
“What we’ve seen for the first time at this World Cup are five African teams with five African coaches. It’s a historic moment. In the case of Walid Regragui, he is a former Morocco international. He understands the culture of the country and he knows what it takes to win.
“He’s not been with these players for a very long time having only been appointed in August – only three or four months ago. That as when the club season in Europe was starting so he’s had a handful of friendlies to work with the players.
“The key thing he did after his appointment was he brought Hakim Ziyech in from the cold. Ziyech had fallen out with Halilhodzic and didn’t even play at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Ziyech key to Morocco’s hopes
Hakim Ziyech scored his first World Cup goal in Morocco’s 2-1 win over Canada. He’s also played the most passes into the box (17) and created the most chances (7) of any Morocco player at this World Cup.
He’s also had the most ball carries (43), carried the ball the furthest distance (477.6m) and had the most take-ons following a ball carry (9) of any Morocco player.
“When Regragui was appointed, he told the player he was central to his plans, and this has been key to helping Morocco at the World Cup. He is their talisman but it’s a team that is very dynamic.
“They’re not just relying on him. They have Youssef En-Nesyri up front, who is the first Moroccan player to score in two different World Cups.
“What we are seeing with Morocco is reward for investing in facilities. It’s a big problem still in Africa where Federations don’t understand there needs to be pitches and academies, coaches and modern facilities.
“Morocco’s success is not coming from the sky. It is intentional. They have built the Mohammed VI Complex in Maamoura covering almost 30 hectares with an overall investment of $65.4m (£54m) built over a period of three years.
“This is being used by all the national teams of all age groups. The thought process behind it is that if they have the likes of Hakimi and Ziyech coming from PSG and Chelsea, they need to feel at home when they come to train for the national team.
“The facilities have to be the same, if not better. There has been a shift in mentality. This cuts across every sphere as Regragui won the CAF Champions League with Wydad AC in Casablanca in May. He is a good man-manager.
“Against Canada, when the game ended, the players lifted him up in the air and there is such a good vibe which we didn’t see under Halilhodzic.
“When you consider the World Cup in its entire history, no foreign coach has won it with a nation since its inception in 1930. Having someone who understands the culture of the country – in the cases of the five African nations – it has made a huge difference.”
Organisation behind Moroccan success
“At the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, Morocco were eliminated by Egypt in a game where they were ultimately bullied. Their mentality was questioned.
“Morocco have the better players across the two teams, but at the time it was seen as a mental block. There was a fear there, in the same way Spain had to overcome in 2010. The quality was not disputed, but there was a fear.
“The key change since then is that Morocco have changed their manager. Vahid Halilhodzic was in charge at AFCON but he was very conservative in his approach despite having many attacking players.
Did you know?
Morocco are unbeaten in their last four matches at the World Cup (W2 D2). The only African team to go five consecutive World Cup games without defeat are Cameroon (W2 D3 between 1982 and 1990).
“We were not seeing the fluidity that we’re seeing now. The Moroccan federation took a very tough decision to fire Halilhodzic as recently as August.
“The president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, Fouzi Lekjaa, was under immense pressure after a 3-0 friendly defeat to USA. They played so badly and so something had to change.
“I was at Morocco’s win over Canada and it was so lit. If you look at their players, they are in the last 16 on merit.
“Yassine Bounou is the No 1 goalkeeper for Sevilla, and he was voted as the best goalkeeper in La Liga. Until Canada’s goal, which was actually an own goal by Nayef Aguerd – Morocco hadn’t conceded under their new coach Regragui.
“Defensively they are very organised and solid. It is very difficult to score against Morocco.
“They have players like Achraf Hakimi, so it’s not just about the skill and the talent. It’s about the mentality that comes with having a Paris Saint-Germain player in the team.
“I don’t need to say much about Hakim Ziyech but it is true he has not had much playing time in the Premier League this season at Chelsea. But Ziyech is a world-class player.
“If you believe in him and if you give him an opportunity, he will deliver. He is the same to Morocco as Riyad Mahrez is to Algeria. He is often on the bench for Man City, but when he comes on he can change the game.
“Abdelhamid Sabiri [who now plays for Sampdoria] grew up in Germany and actually played for their under-21s. That sort of early exposure in the Bundesliga is now coming in very handy.
“Morocco is one of those countries that have so many players who were actually born in Europe. They’re very exposed from a very young age to high facilities and a different mentality.
“Morocco as a country right now has invested so much in infrastructure, manpower and coaching staff. A FIFA delegate was telling me that he found Morocco to be the most organised African team at the World Cup, so the results haven’t surprised me.”
‘Morocco are playing at home’
“Morocco are an Arab team so playing at Qatar means they’re at home. They played here in the Arab Cup last December with just locally-based players and reached the semi-finals.
“Even though there wasn’t a player in that squad who is part of this group, it highlights the point that they feel at home.
“You have to consider then that there are so many Moroccans who live in Qatar and the King of Morocco Mohammed VI set aside two planes and subsidised the price for tickets so fans could come and watch the tournament.
“If you enter the stadium during Morocco’s group games, the atmosphere has been like home matches. You can put the Moroccan fans at this World Cup alongside Argentina and Mexico.
“Their support has been intense and that has really helped the team.”
Senegal scouting report – Can they shock England?
Senegal have alternated between winning and not winning in their six World Cup meetings with European opponents, losing 2-0 against Netherlands in their most recent game.
For that sequence to continue, England would have to exit the tournament on Sunday.
Courtesy of beating Qatar and Ecuador in the group stages, the Lions of Teranga have won consecutive World Cup matches for the first time – but could they summon the spirit of 2002 to cause another upset?
“Senegal are the African champions for a reason,” Komugisha tells Sky Sports. “They will go into the game against England with a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. They understand they’re coming up against a very well-oiled England team who are hungry for success.
“When you have a team that has Trent Alexander-Arnold coming off the bench and with fans trying to convince Gareth Southgate to start Phil Foden, we are talking about quality. Senegal have players who have experience of playing at the highest level.
“The goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has had a tough season with Chelsea, of course, with Kepa Arrizabalaga being first choice until very close to the World Cup. Against the Netherlands, he had a poor game and was arguably at fault for both goals.
“But he redeemed himself against Qatar and played a crucial role against Ecuador to help take Senegal to the last 16 for the first time since 2002. He is still a senior member in that side and he brings a lot of experience alongside Kalidou Koulibaly.
“Koulibaly had never scored for Senegal but then produced a striker’s goal against Ecuador. I was wondering what he was doing in that position! Of course, against England they will be underdogs but Aliou Cisse was the captain as a player of the team that got to the quarter-finals in 2002.
“He is the first African coach to take Senegal to two World Cups and I remember seeing him at full-time after the game against Ecuador, and he knelt down, looked in the sky and punched the air. He then got up quickly and folded his jacket and headed down the tunnel.
“It showed that for him, Senegal have only just got started. Yes, we can celebrate but we have a lot of work to do. I can assure you that especially without Sadio Mane, his absence has united them more than ever.
“They want to do this for him and they want to do this for their people in February, the streets of Dakar were packed. I’d never seen a parade like that so you saw what it meant for them. 2022 has been a special year for Senegal.
“What better way to announce themselves on the world stage than to defeat England.
How does this Senegal compare to the Class of ’02?
They’ve beaten the defending champions before in France back in 2002. No one expected that as they were this new team from Arica playing in the opening game.
“I remember the face of Emmanuel Petit that day. The team in 2002 were legendary. You have to go back to 1990 with Cameroon and Roger Milla, or Nigeria’s team of 1994 at USA to talk about such a spirited team.
“With Cameroon in 1990, there is no team who could possibly eclipse them as it was a total surprise. Cameroonians believe Milla is their best player ever to grace a football pitch – no matter what Samuel Eto’o has achieved. For Senegal fans, there is no comparison with the Golden Generation of 2002.
“The current team has done something that no other group of players have done from Senegal in winning the Africa Cup of Nations. They deserve to be respected, but in terms of how they are viewed, the 2002 team really is special.
“Of course, Cisse is part of both. He is like an older brother for these players. Even though Mendy and Koulibaly are much taller than him, you watch them look down when he speaks and listen to his every word.
“They understand that there is a whole new generation that is looking up to them. I remember talking to Sadio Mane a couple of months ago, and he told me that he was in awe of the 2002 team – how much he wanted to emulate the likes of El Hadji Diouf.
“There is a responsibility on this team – and it’s not just about reaching the quarter-finals. It’s about a nation who is hungry for success. It’s a continent that wants to make a statement. Africa only have five slots at the World Cup finals out of 54 countries.
“It’s very important that the African champions beat England.”
Sarr shoulders burden of Mane absence
“In terms of filling Sadio Mane’s position, Ismaila Sarr is playing the same role. He is a dynamic player who will still play if Mane was playing, but now the weight of expectation is really on him. He has to adjust to the way that the coach wants to play, but it also depends on the opponent.
“Against England, a side that is fast and puts a lot of pressure on defenders, it’ll be very interesting to see how Cisse sets up his team. Cisse was a defender by trade so he’ll set up his side to limit chances conceded.
“The loss of Idrissa Gueye in midfield will be felt. He is a big player for Senegal and it complicates things as he comes with Premier League experience. He plays for Everton but he’s played with the likes of Lionel Messi at PSG. He’s someone who knows how to read the game, and make tackles.
“For Senegal, he is also someone who creates, so it’s a big blow.”
Who plays who in the last 16?
Saturday December 3
- Netherlands vs USA – Kick-off 3pm
- Argentina vs Australia – Kick-off 7pm
Sunday December 4
- France vs Poland – Kick-off 3pm
- England vs Senegal – Kick-off 7pm
Monday December 5
- Japan vs Croatia – Kick-off 3pm
- Brazil vs South Korea – Kick-off 7pm
Tuesday December 6
- Morocco vs Spain – Kick-off 3pm
- Portugal vs Switzerland – Kick-off 7pm