For only the third time, the work cup semi finals will include a team not from the traditional powerhouse confederations of UEFA (Europe), and COMNEBOL (South America). Perhaps it’s somewhat romantic that each of them three teams reperesents a different football confederation, with CONCACAF (North, Central and Caribbean America), AFC (Asia) and CAF (Africa) all having had one team reach this stage. We are hours away from Morocco trying to reach the World Cup final, and before they do, let’s look at how they go there, and the journeys of those before them.
United States of America – 1930
Long before the MLS or even the formation of CONCACAF, the USA was among the thirteen teams that were invited to the inaugural FIFA World Cup in Uruguay. Although they didn’t qualify, the Americans soon proved that they belonged on the biggest stage.
Heavily influenced by Scottish immigrants, the Americans absolutely dominated their two group-stage opponents. They weren’t expected to beat Belgium but ended up making light work of the Europeans with goals coming from Bart McGhee, Tom Florie, and Bert Patenaude to secure a 3-0 win. Goalkeeper Jimmy Douglas made history in this game, becoming the first goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet at the FIFA World Cup.
Next up was the 1929 Copa Libertadores runners-up Paraguay, who in that tournament defeated eventual World Cup champions Uruguay 3-0. A win would ensure that the USA would win their group, and it was an opportunity the U.S. wouldn’t waste. The U.S. made even more World Cup history, striker Bert Patenaude became the first-ever player to score a World Cup hattrick in another stunning 3-0 win over the South Americans. The U.S. topped their group with a 100% record, six goals for, and zero goals conceded – enough to qualify for the World Cup semi-final.
It wasn’t to be in the semi-final, Argentina was amongst the elite teams in the world back in 1930, but as well as being talented – they were borderline playing a different sport. At times, Argentina’s tactics against the States more resembled American-NFL football with incredibly physical challenges and tackles, resulting in multiple serious injuries for the Americans which because of the rules in 1930, meant that the Americans were forced to play with ten men as substitutions didn’t exist yet. Despite a valiant effort, Argentina won the game 6-1, with Jim Brown scoring the one American goal
There was no third-fourth-place playoff game between the USA and Yugoslavia, but in 1986, a FIFA report confirmed that based on standings, and strength of schedule, the Americans were officially ranked as the third-best team in 1930, making them (as it stands) the only non-UEFA/CONMEBOL to finish third at the World Cup.
Korea Republic – 2002
It would be seventy-two hears before another team out with the big two confederations made the last four, and whatever you think of South Korea’s run, you can’t say it wasn’t memorable. Before 2002, Korea had a poor World Cup record, in fifteen previous World Cup games, Korea had failed to win a single game.
But that changed quickly, South Korea went unbeaten in the group stage, with a draw against the States and wins over Poland and Portugal meaning they advanced out the group for the first time ever with seven points! Their reward was a game against Italy, a highly talented team that will billed as legitimate World Cup contenders. In stunning, and admittedly controversial fashion, the hosts stunned Italy with a 2-1 win with Seol Ki-Hyeon and Ahn Jung-Hwan getting on the scoresheet. Again, in controversial and stunning fashion, Korea eliminated yet another European power – this time knocking out Spainon penalties to become the first ever Asian team to reach the semi final.
The semi-final against (at the time) three-time winners Germany was a step too far, Michael Ballack’s solitary goal enough to separate the two sides. South Korea ended their tournament with a high scoring 3-2 loss to Türkiye in the third-place playoff, but regardless it was a dream run for Korea and Asian football, one that they’ll remember for a long time!
Side note – Although geopolitically Türkiye is mostly situated in Asia, they play in UEFA so are considered as solely European in a football context.
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
Morocco – 2022
And that brings us to the current World Cup in Qatar, where for the first time ever – an African team has reached a World Cup semi-final. It’s taken four attempts for African teams to win a quarter-final, but now the ghosts of 1990, 2002, and most notably 2010 have been somewhat laid to rest on a continental scale.
Morocco was not supposed to reach this stage, as recently as august they had an unpopular manager in Vahid Halilhodžić, who had fallen out with star man Hakim Ziyech. A 3-0 loss to the United States in the summer had many people thinking Morocco would be picked off by Belgium, Croatia, and Canada in the group stage.
But that didn’t happen, Morocco qualified for the last sixteen with relative ease under new manager Walid Regragui (who got Ziyech back in the squad), taking seven points in the group stage with a 0-0 draw against Croatia, and 2-0 and 2-1wins against Belgium and Canada respectively. Setting up a local derby match against Spain. After 120 minutes of impenetrable defence against Spain, the game went to penalties in which Spain failed to score a single penalty in a decisive 3-0 penalty shootout win. Next was Portugal, who were coming off a 6-1 win against Switzerland.
In yet another tactical masterclass, Morocco registered their forth clean sheet in five games, and a Youssef En-Nesyri goal just before half time meant that Morocco became not only the first African team to reach the semi-final, but the first Arab country to reach a World Cup semi-final!
Standing between Morocco and even more history is World Cup holders France, and we know wait to see how Morocco gets on in the biggest game in African football history. Can they go one step further than the USA in 1930 and South Korea in 2002? They’ll be arguably billions across the globe hoping so.
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