Behind Morocco’s dream career at the FIFA World Cup is a secret weapon in the stands: the families of the players

THERE’S THIS heartwarming viral clip from the World Cup. It has Morocco’s star player Achraf Hakimi, after the victory over Spain, tearing away to the fence where his mother sits. He climbs over the barricade and hugs her, tears streaming down both eyes. She holds his face and kisses his forehead. Several Moroccan fans now have this emotional photo as their backdrop — and a banner, written in Darija, Moroccan Arabic, that reads, “You are our favorite son.”

Not just Hakimi, you could see several other teammates in their parent’s embrace. In fact, most Moroccan players’ parents are in Doha to watch their children play, often at the end of long journeys of hardship and pain.

“My mother cleaned houses and my father was a street vendor. We come from a humble family that struggled to make a living. Today I fight for them every day,” Hakimi said in 2018, the year he joined German club Borussia Dortmund.

In Doha on Tuesday evening, a few feet away from Hakimi, midfielder Abdelhamid Sabiri kissed his father, while his mother captured the moment. So did Yahya Jabrane, Zakaria Aboukhlal and Bilal el-Khannouss. Like it was a big family party.

It was coach Walid Regragui who persuaded the football association to allow relatives of football players and support staff to come along. Regragui’s mother is also there. “Based on our experience in 2018, together with our technical team, we opted for the option of taking the families with us. Some players have children, some prefer to have their parents with them. We have done a good job in that regard. The spirit of family off the field, that’s what we want to bring to the field, and so far it’s working very well,” said the coach.

Although not the richest federation in the world, Moroccan football officials decided to cover all expenses, including accommodation in the same hotel where the players are staying.

However, Regragui was aware of the backlash if they crashed early. “If you win, there are no downsides, everyone is happy, but if you lose, they will say, ‘Why did you bring the families?’ That was a dilemma many of them told me,” he said.

But now that they are in the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time in their history, the coach’s move has proven to be a masterstroke.

After Spain’s game, which Morocco won on penalties, an emotional Regragui said: “For us, they (the parents) are everything, the reason we are here. Whether we win or lose, we want them to be here and proud of what they’ve accomplished. They are our strength and the reason we are here. Our success is impossible without the happiness of our parents,” he said.

Regragui’s mother Fathima has never seen him play a game, or accompany him anywhere on his travels as a coach. But when he asked her to go with him to Doha, she couldn’t resist. “We have been based in France for 50-55 years and apart from club matches in the area I have never seen Walid play. I was initially hesitant to leave the house but he convinced me and told me I was his strength. So I thought I would go with him and every time I see him I get emotional,” Fathima told Moroccan newspaper Al Ayam.

Before every game she would meet and bless him. Before the game against Canada, she sent him a simple but moving message: “Whether you lose or win, I’m proud of you, my son.” Her only problem, says Al Ayam journalist Amir Badr, is that she receives too many calls from relatives, acquaintances and journalists.

“She and Sadia (Hakimi’s mother) have become Morocco’s most famous mothers. Everyone is proud of it and everyone wants to convey their wishes to them. Everyone wants to take a picture with them in the stands. Everyone recognizes them outside the stadium, everyone invites them to their homes,” he said.

Fathima had migrated to Corbeil-Essonnes, about 30 km from Paris, even before Regragui was born. Hakimi’s mother emigrated to Spain when she was still a teenager and had emigrated to Madrid at the height of Moroccan migration in the 1980s. She did odd jobs like cleaning houses and streets to support herself while his father was a street vendor. “They gave their lives for me. They have taken many things from my siblings to make me succeed. Today I play for them,” he posted on Instagram.

The families have bonded so much over the past three weeks that they are now one big family themselves. “They live in different parts of the world, have never met, come from different backgrounds, but now they are all like a family, wishing and praying for each other’s success, going out to dinner together, spending time together,” says Badr , the journalist.

Forming a mini fan group themselves, they are joined by thousands of Moroccans who have settled in Qatar and nearly 50,000 who have flown in from Morocco and parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East to support on match days.

This scarlet wall of support – mother, father, family and a country that has become one big family – has now inspired the coach to dream of what was unthinkable until a few weeks ago, winning the World Cup. “We believe that as a team we can do anything,” said Regragui.

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