Morocco changing face of football, says former 'golden generation' hero

Dec 8 (Reuters) - Morocco midfielder Abderrazak Khairi wrote his name in the country's football history books by scoring twice against Portugal to lead the first 'golden generation' of the Atlas Lions to the last 16 at the 1986 World Cup.

That was the first time a team from Africa -- or the Arab world -- reached the knockouts, and on Saturday the current crop meet the former European champions again after Walid Regragui's team took a step further by reaching the quarter-finals.

Last week Morocco stunned the world in Qatar when they won a group that included Croatia, runners-up in Russia four years ago, and Belgium, the second ranked team in the world.

Then continued their progress by knocking out Spain, the 2010 world champions, in a penalty shootout in the last 16 to achieve the best Arab achievement in the finals.

Khairi says the current generation's ambition has no limits.

"I think that the Moroccan national team is trying to change the map of world football now. They are playing at the highest possible level and proving to the world that impossible in nothing. The more we dream of something, the more ambitious (we are)," Khairi told Reuters.

Morocco showed a winning mentality and both Regragui and defender Ashraf Hakimi spoke boldly about the dream of winning the title, saying, "Why don't Africa dream of winning the cup?".

The dream seemed impossible a few weeks ago but now they have a chance to be the first African team ever to reach the semi-finals.

"It will be a historic moment for all of us, Arabs and Africans. Let us live the dream and, whatever happens, we have already achieved some of our dreams in this version," Khairi said.

TOUGH GROUP

Since the achievement of the 1986 generation, Morocco have exited the group stage three times and many thought they would face the same fate in Qatar after being drawn in a tough group and with the departure of Vahid Halilhodzic and appointment of Regragui just three months before the start of the tournament.

But they have surprised everyone with a strong, brave and balanced performance and have conceded only once in four matches - an own goal by defender Nayef Aguerd against Canada.

Morocco began their campaign with a 0-0 draw against Croatia, then defeated Belgium 2-0 with a fine display before booking a last-16 spot by beating Canada 2-1 to top the group.

They then ground out a goalless draw with Spain before goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, who plays for Sevilla, starred in the shootout with two saves to secure a 3-0 victory on penalties.

"Indeed, no one was waiting for these results, and perhaps if the former coach (Halilhodzic) had continued, there would have been calls for his dismissal now," Khairi, 60, added.

The former midfielder praised the role of Regragui, the first Arab coach to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.

"Although the preparation period was very short, Walid was able to form an exemplary team and (Hakim) Ziyech and (Noussair) Mazraoui gave a new spirit to the team," Khairi explained.

Halilhodzic led Morocco to a successful qualifying campaign, but was dismissed due to disputes with some players, led by Ziyech and Bayern Munich defender Mazraoui.

Regragui reunited with the two players and merged them with the team, and they have played an influential role in the current achievement, especially Chelsea winger Ziyech.

FIGHTING SPIRIT

"The strength of this generation and the main reason for Regragui's success is the cohesion, fighting spirit, and patriotism to defend the reputation of Moroccan and Arab football," Khairi said.

"Walid also wants to show his technical capabilities to the world, and prove that football is not monopolised by foreign coaches, but that Arabs can show their personality.

Khairi was not jealous that the current generation have surpassed the achievement of the 1986 side.

Thirty-six years ago, Morocco also won a difficult group, with two 0-0 draws against England and Poland, then defeated Portugal 3-1 thanks to Khairi's double.

The adventure ended in the last 16 when Lothar Matthaeus scored two minutes from time to give West Germany, the eventual runners-up, a 1-0 win.

"Recalling the Portugal match, I evoke memories that were and will remain beautiful. History preserves these moments and they will not be erased from memory," he said.

"The 1986 generation cannot help but feel proud of the current generation and this is the nature of life when new generations come that outpace previous generations."

But Khairi, who scored his two goals against Portugal in a blistering seven-minute first-half spell, does not expect an all-out attacking performance from Morocco on Saturday.

He suggested that Regragui should adhere to his defensive approach against Portugal, who crushed Switzerland 6-1 in the last 16 after excluding Ronaldo from the starting lineup.

"Perhaps Walid will remain faithful to his defensive approach without taking any risks, and waiting for the right moment to pounce on the Portuguese. I hope that the fairytale run will continue with another victory, God willing."

Writing by Shady Amir, editing by Ken Ferris

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