In Morocco, an Imported Team for the World Cup

Even before he began talking with midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, Ruud Gullit knew he would fail to convince him.

The sales pitch — persuading Amrabat, a prodigiously gifted 21-year-old, to commit to playing for the Netherlands internationally — had some built-in advantages. Amrabat, after all, had been born in the village of Huizen, close to Amsterdam. He had lived his entire life in the country, and had played all his club soccer there.

But now he had a choice to make: to link his national team future to the Netherlands, where he had learned the game, or to Morocco, the North African country of his parents and grandparents.

“The family pushes you to play for Morocco,” said Gullit, a famed Dutch player who was an assistant coach with the national team when he spoke with Amrabat last year. “So therefore there was no choice. I think they have no choice.”

Amrabat is one of five Dutch-born players in the Moroccan roster headed to the World Cup this month, a squad that also includes a captain born in France and playing in Italy, and a defender from Spain schooled at Real Madrid. In fact, the Moroccan team’s return to soccer’s top tournament for the first time in 20 years has relied on a squad populated almost entirely by players born outside the country and forged in the academies of clubs and national associations scattered across Europe.

When Morocco turned in its final roster on Monday, the list showed 17 players out of 23 born outside of the country. The truth is, there could have been even more.

The story of Morocco’s successful qualification is perhaps the best modern illustration of how nations have turned to a global diaspora to achieve success in soccer. Morocco’s last World Cup team, in 1998, had only two players born outside the country. Now it has 17. And many of the current stars are products of a recruitment campaign that gained force in 2014, the year a team from rival Algeria rode French-born talent into the second round of the World Cup.

But the success of Morocco’s campaign is also is a reminder of how, as a revivalist nationalism sweeps across Europe, some players have come to consider the nations of their parents and grandparents a better fit than the countries they have long called home.

The Netherlands, along with France, is the birthplace of the majority of the players that will star for Morocco this summer. Other players have been sourced through a vast Moroccan grapevine of scouts in Belgium, Germany and Spain. To be sure, Morocco isn’t the only team at the World Cup that cast a net beyond its borders in efforts to create a winning team: Tunisia’s star midfielder Wahbi Khazri is among several French-born players on its squad, and Senegal, Portugal, Switzerland and even host Russia have called in players who were born abroad.

But no team will arrive in Russia with foreign players in such abundant numbers as Morocco.

“We explained to them the most important thing is team spirit,” Morocco’s French coach, Hervé Renard, said. “To achieve something in football, if you don’t have team spirit, it doesn’t matter where you are coming from.”

“They love Morocco; that’s why they play for us even though they are from elsewhere,” Omar Ghazaz, a 72-year-old dentist, said in January during a morning break to sip coffee and bask in some winter sunlight on a side street adjoining Casablanca’s main market.

He and others knew that Renard was even then continuing his “missions” — a euphemism he uses to describe the federation’s attempts to discover, and persuade, new players with Moroccan heritage to sign on. A Christmas trip to see Manchester City’s Spanish-born attacker Brahim Diaz ended without resolution, and in May the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected an appeal that would have allowed a promising 22-year-old forward, Munir El Haddadi, to switch his allegiance from his native Spain to Morocco.

Efforts like that could mean even more competition for places for Mahi, but he has already made his choice. For now he will continue to play his club soccer in the Netherlands, which remains home. Mahi’s wife, Daisy, is Dutch, and he said he had delayed transferring to an overseas team because he wanted his first child to be born in the Netherlands.

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