Why the biggest winner of the 2022 World Cup was actually a whole continent…
I think it is safe to say nobody expected to see what we did from Morocco.
The Atlas Lions’ run to the semifinal of the World Cup was historic in many ways. In a competition largely dominated by sides from Europe and South America, Morocco stood as a representative of the rest of the world, becoming only the third nation outside of Europe and South America to make the semifinals of a World Cup. In a world where it seems that UEFA and CONMEBOL are rebelling a bit against FIFA, this representation is very important.
Morocco also stands as a representative of the African continent and Arab world, two regions largely lacking deserved recognition and representation within the sport.
For the longest time, outsiders looked down upon African football as “inferior” or below the standard of their South American or European counterparts. African footballers were often belittled, described often as players reliant upon “pace and power” in a largely false and, frankly, quite racist description meant to show an apparent lack of technical skill or intelligence. Aside from a few grand African players, namely the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré, and Michael Essien (and George Weah before them), most talented African players were largely dismissed or disrespected. Even now, some prominent African players have not been given the credit and respect they deserve, with Kalidou Koulibaly probably being the prime example of a world-class African player not given proper love during the prime of his career. Most painfully, the narrative around the African Cup of Nations remains horribly ignorant. The biggest competition in African football, one of the continental championships in the world, is viewed as an inconvenience by European teams and media rather than something that players view as being incredibly important and worth playing in.
The narrative is changing, though, and that is an incredibly good thing. Even before the World Cup, African players had begun to enter stardom and, in some cases, superstardom. Former Liverpool teammates Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah are the obvious examples, but they are joined by the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Édouard Mendy, Achraf Hakimi, Thomas Partey, and Hakim Ziyech. Among these stars are young players recognized as being future stars of the sport, including Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen, Algeria’s Ismaël Bennacer, and Ivory Coast’s Ibrahim Sangaré. There are African players now playing for many of the top teams in Europe, players who are widely valued. The pool of players selected by African teams also seems (at least from my outsider view) to be expanding. African nations are assembling very talented national teams, with pools of players made up both of players born and developed within their nation as well as dual nationals, sons of the African diaspora, who choose to represent the nation of their ancestry. This blend has created a unique culture, a unique style, and teams who are incredibly fun to watch and follow, usually supported by legions of supporters just as Morocco was in Qatar.
And that takes us to the 2022 World Cup, where reigning Champions of Africa Senegal traveled to Qatar alongside Morocco, Ghana, Tunisia, and Cameroon. Morocco were obviously the headline grabbers, making a run to the semifinal and beating Belgium, Spain, and Portugal along the way. Senegal were quite unlucky to be without star forward Sadio Mané but still gave a good account of themselves. Tunisia and Cameroon were unlucky to be placed in difficult groups but each gave a good account of themselves, with Cameroon having an exciting 3-3 draw against Serbia and a 1-0 win over Brazil while Tunisia had a 0-0 draw with Denmark and a 1-0 win over France.
All in all, it was a strong showing for the African sides. It reinforced our established belief in the known African stars, players like Koulibaly, Partey, and Hakimi, while introducing us to the next generation. Mohamed Kudus was the bright spot in Ghana’s disappointing tournament, showing a dynamism and incredible technical skill that will make him an incredible attacking midfielder for any side (should he finally leave Ajax). Morocco’s Sofyan Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi were two of the best performers of the tournament, and Morocco manager Walid Regragui, fresh off of an African Champions League win with Wydad AC, will only have increased his worldwide stock thousand-fold. This tournament has only reinforced the incredible amount of talent among African nations, a talent level that was higher than many believed and is growing.
Which becomes more notable when arguably two of the continent’s three best sides on paper were not there.
Qualifying from Africa is incredibly difficult, arguably the most difficult of any continental qualification for the World Cup, given the structure of qualifying and how teams are seeded in qualifying. The final round for instance, a two-legged playoff to decide a spot in Qatar, did pit Senegal against Egypt in a rematch of the most recent African Cup of Nations Final. The nature of the final qualifying round did mean that all three of Nigeria, Algeria, and Egypt did not make the tournament, despite Nigeria and Algeria specifically boasting potentially the most talent of any African nation outside of Senegal. If anything, this tournament has shown the rest of the world that there is talent in Africa, and regardless of how anyone feels about the expanded World Cup, there is clearly an impetus to add more qualification slots for African teams.
And speaking of the expanded World Cup, this is why Africa will come away from 2022 as the big winner of the tournament. For 2026, Africa is moving up to 9 1/3 qualification slots, up from the five that they had previously. Four whole other African sides will qualify for 2026. This will likely include Algeria, it will include Nigeria, it could include Egypt and Mali, and it could also even include a return for Ivory Coast. These teams, alongside a likely resurgent Morocco and Senegal as well as a stable Ghana, Cameroon, and Tunisia, could make it a very interesting World Cup in 2026. If there is one massive benefit to the expanded World Cup, is it is offering additional slots for talented teams who just narrowly missed out on spots in the tournament. These teams are not going to dilute the talent there, they will boost it massively.
Experiencing the Moroccan run in 2022 was wonderful. It will last as one of my best memories from this tournament. A resilient team fighting for every inch of the pitch, roared on by a traveling army of supporters, and with their own sprinkling of talent mixed in, the Atlas Lions and manager Walid Regragui were possibly the biggest winners of the tournament, carrying the banner for a continent longing for deserved recognition. Going into 2026, it is easy to see how African teams could make some noise, cause some upsets, and introduce the world to a new set of talents and new set of heroes.
2026 will, indeed, be the time for Africa.
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