Moroccan midfielder Sofyan Amrabat is a rock in the surf, but can he keep France’s Mbappé and Griezmann in check?

If you find yourself a player at this World Cup and have somehow innocently sauntered into the Moroccan midfield, thinking space is a luxury you can afford – Sofyan Amrabat is about to take the ball away from you.

It’s over before you realize it. If you chase him to get the ball back, chances are you won’t catch it. And if you do, he will do what great midfielders do when they are in trouble. He’ll drop his shoulders and turn in a confined space, or ramp up a sudden acceleration, or find the only player in the park that isn’t guarded. He will find a way – one way or another.

At the 2018 World Cup, this description matched one player: Luka Modric.

If statistics are to be invoked, the magic number is 56. That was the number of ball recoveries Modric made four years ago on his way to the final. Seven of the top ten players in ball recovery at the Russian edition were all Croats. At this World Cup, Amrabat leads that tally with 41 recoveries in 480 minutes of lung-bursting, physically murderous football that hurts in the eyes of all, except if you happen to be from Morocco.

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Moroccan Sofyan Amrabat shakes hands with Portuguese Joao Cancelo after the match. (Reuters)

If defensive stinginess is key to the country’s deep run in this edition of the World Cup, then Amrabat is the architect of this goal drought. He sits in front of Morocco’s defensive line, but behind the first wave of midfield coach Walid Regragui has to offer.

An opponent who somehow manages to avoid Selim Amallah and Azzedine Ounahi clatters against the wall that is Amrabat. And then there is the small problem that the Moroccan defensive midfielder is great on the ball. Against Spain, the 26-year-old routinely found himself winning the ball just outside the box but was almost immediately surrounded by Marco Asensio, Dani Olmo and Pedri. He had enough skill on the ball to navigate himself out of the noose that is a high press and managed a forward pass. In Serie A, ahead of Fiorentina, Amrabat is in the 97th percentile for progressive passing.

At the World Cup, he combines three qualities that illustrate Moroccan success. The ability to harass opponents in winning back the ball, then the ability to shield that ball and make sure it makes way for players forward and finally the sheer energy and stamina he injects into the team .

Cristiano Ronaldo from Portugal and Sofyan Amrabat from Morocco respond. (Reuters)

In their first game against Croatia, he ran just under 7 miles, followed by two more 7 miles performances against Belgium and Canada.

But it was the match against Spain where Amrabat really made miles. And this was when he was already an injury concern for Morocco and almost didn’t make it to the game. He ran for a massive 14.66 km in that historic win, despite being medically examined until 3am.

“I am very emotional. The question was whether I could play this game. Last night I stayed up until 3 am at the physio, also an injection before the game. I can’t let the boys and my country down.” said Amrabat after the game.

Born in North Holland in the village of Huizen, he has an older brother who had already paved the way for his football career. Nordin Amrabat is currently a winger for AEK Athens who played with Galatasaray and Watford. However, the younger Amrabat was picked up by the Utrecht youth system and ended up playing three years with the Dutch club. After that, a spell at Feyenoord, followed by a league title at Club Brugge and a loan spell at Hellas Verona brought him to his current club, Fiorentina.

Morocco’s Sofyan Amrabat tackles Portugal’s Otavio during the World Cup quarter-final soccer match between Morocco and Portugal at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar. (AP)

Both brothers were once part of the Dutch youth line-up. But both chose to take on Moroccan colors, just like so many other players of this team. Sofyan was part of the Netherlands U15, but for the 2013 U-17 World Cup he eventually represented Morocco, an association that has seen him win 44 caps for his country since his debut in 2017.

Now Morocco will take on France at the World Cup. The best defensive team of this edition faces its biggest threat. Amrabat likes to drift to the right to lend a hand to the magically fast duo of Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech. Against France, this casual drifting on track puts him on a very direct collision course against none other than Kylian Mbappé.

And if Mbappé isn’t a threat, then France’s true renaissance man in Antoine Griezmann is. Both of Les Blues’ assists against England came from Griezmann and the lack of position that hampered his club career has been turned into a strength by Didier Deschamps. It lends itself to a roving midfielder, who is no longer expected to fill the burden of goalscoring, but rather hovers, explores and creates between the lines.

It is Amrabat’s next big test. But with Spain’s midfield in his pocket and Cristiano Ronaldo crying in his rearview mirror, there’s no reason to believe that one of this World Cup’s best finds won’t make it, even if it’s no less than the World Champions on the doorstep.

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