After two games, Morocco are one of the most entertaining teams at the World Cup. They chain together long spells of possession, but don’t do it casually. Some teams control the ball casually — Argentina and Spain can move the ball around like the little car on a rideshare app. A goalie could watch Spain, and almost time exactly when they need to pay attention. As if he was squinting at a screen, and read: Shot on goal will arrive in exactly four minutes.
Morocco treated the ball like it was set to go off at any minute. They backheeled, feinted, threaded frenetic passes through midfield. Morocco didn’t play like they just wanted to process the ball towards the goal. They threw players forward, flooding the defense with superior numbers and laying little quicksilver passes all over the place. Morocco’s 2018 World Cup team was fun to watch because, at their most active, they moved like a ball of caffeinated gnats.
After two matches, that extremely entertaining ball of gnats has zero points. In their first match, Morocco clearly outplayed Iran, dominating possession, taking more shots on goal, and generally looking like a more coordinated, kinetic side on the field. That advantage evaporated when Morocco missed multiple goal opportunities, including a tantalizing header miss from Younes Belhanda.
An own goal from Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz came later, and Morocco gave Iran their first World Cup victory since 1998. Correction: that was an own goal in stoppage time, in the 95th minute. Can’t leave that part out.
Morocco had Portugal for their second game in group play. Rewind everything about the Iran match and play it back: Dazzling passing, effort all over the place, jukes eliciting audible “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd in Moscow. Snowglobe football played fearlessly, red and green jerseys flying upfield, possession dominated, etc.
They lost again. This time defeat came off the head of Cristiano Ronaldo, so a.) Morocco is in good company, and b.) at least a player on the opposing team scored the winning goal for the opponent. Morocco dominated the match, played courageous, aggressive soccer, and in return for all that will be going home early.
This is where some very obvious things about soccer usually appear. Some of this comes down to execution. Goal opportunities can’t be wasted. Teams that do not capitalize on set pieces do not advance in competition. (Especially when, like Morocco, they get more of them in every match, with a total of 15 set pieces in two games.) Critical mistakes at critical times usually equal critical failure, etc, etc.
That is all true. What is also true: Sometimes a team can be a joy to watch and get absolutely jack and shit in return. The list is endless: the Dantoni-era Phoenix Suns in the NBA, the Run-N-Shoot Houston Oilers in the NFL, the no-huddle offenses of Chip Kelly at the University of Oregon. In the category of the World Cup, the most recent frenzied lovable team in the category has to be 2014’s Chilean squad, a side hellbent on leaving the opponent breathless, spent, and in awe of Alexis Sanchez’s immortal and insanely jacked quads.
That breathless Chile team got to the Round of 16 before losing on penalty kicks to Brazil. Morocco goes out a bit earlier — despite having a stellar 4-0-1 qualifying run leading up to the Cup. They’re out for a thousand little reasons: a few shots gone inches wide, a bad call or two, a mind-blowing mistake at exactly the wrong moment.
The lesson here for Morocco is probably to never, ever try — to play a little more conservatively, a little more cynically, to manage, control, and in the end survive and advance. Fortunately for viewers, even in defeat, they didn’t seem to agree with that. Or, more likely: They were moving too fast to hear it at all.