Mr Avocado Head has Morocco daring to dream
DOHA, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Thanks to Walid Regragui, the coach who has made Morocco the first Arab nation to reach the World Cup quarter-finals, avocados may just be the nation's favourite fruit.
When the appointment of Regragui following the departure of Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic was announced in August, underwhelmed pundits branded him "avocado head" as a belittling term of derision.
But the shaved-headed coach, who teased those critics at the tournament in Qatar by holding an avocado with a soccer ball inside it and pointing his finger at his head, has more than proved his credentials.
The previously unheralded Regragui, who led Wydad to the Moroccan league and CAF Champions League double last season, masterminded a win for the ages against mighty Spain in the last 16 on Tuesday.
The Atlas Lions produced an amazing defensive performance, allowing Spain possession without threatening danger, before winning a penalty shootout to set up a last-eight clash with Portugal.
Morocco first grabbed attention at the World Cup with a goalless draw against Croatia, the runners-up four years ago.
The 47-year-old coach talked about how his team must develop a winning mentality, and that Morocco would see how they fared against Belgium before their final group game against Canada.
The Moroccans, however, stunned the second-ranked Belgians 2-0 to ease their passage to the last 16 for the second time in their history.
Following another victory over Canada, Regragui became the first Arab coach to lead a team to the knockout rounds.
"I told (my players) we should be proud of ourselves," Regragui said. "It is an opportunity that may not be repeated. Unfortunately, I did not play in the World Cup. God has now given me an opportunity to make history as a coach. I am the happiest person in the world," he said.
"I think Africans can go far, why not dream of winning the cup? We want the next generation to dare to dream."
From the first minute against Spain, those familiar with Moroccan football felt that the 2010 world champions had a long night ahead of them.
Regragui relied on the usual mixture of North African style, combining committed defence with counter-attacks led by Hakim Ziyech, who returned to the national team when Regragui took over from Halilhodzic.
But Regragui's importance extends far beyond on-field tactics. He gives his team confidence and motivates them in his own unique way.
Regragui has managed to convince his players they are playing for all of Morocco and, as a result, the team camp has been different from before.
Regragui decided to invite the players' families to the camp in Qatar.
"I lived my life in Paris, but it was the first time that I attended a tournament with Walid participating, whether as a player or a coach," Regragui's mother told the Moroccan TV station Arryadia.
Although 14 of the 26 players in the Moroccan squad were born abroad, their love for their country is clear.
"We fought and made the Moroccan people happy. We made history and Morocco deserves it. The Moroccan people made us united on the field," Regragui told Bein Sports.
It is possible to feel the warmth between Regragui and his players during training as he treats them like friends.
"They like to hit me on the head," Regragui said. "Maybe it brings them good luck."
At Al-Thumama Stadium on Saturday, the Moroccan, Arab and African world will hope to continue the avocado-inspired fairytale against Portugal.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.