Brahim Diaz set to choose Spain over Morocco in blow for Atlas Lions

Real Madrid star appears to be on verge of answering Luis de la Fuente's call for Euro 2024 finals

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A week after Morocco’s dispiriting exit from the Africa Cup of Nations, more salt into the wounds.

As the standard-bearers for Arab and African football watch from afar as a tournament in which they were expected to reach the final continues without them, a long-term project appears to be slipping beyond their reach.

He is Brahim Diaz, the gifted Real Madrid playmaker, who spent Sunday evening wowing the Bernabeu stadium in a Madrid derby that had cast him unexpectedly into the limelight and put his international future under renewed discussion.

Brahim had been due to start against Atletico on the substitutes' bench. The winger Vinicius Junior then sustained an injury shortly before kick off and Brahim was thrust into the starting XI.

He has had a good 2024 so far. It was about to get even better.

Twenty minutes in, he scored the game’s opening goal, all nimble footwork and a composed, chipped finish. He might have added a second before half time, and when, with a little under 20 minutes left, Brahim was withdrawn by manager Carlo Ancelotti, there were some perplexed noises from around the Bernabeu.

He was, by a wide consensus, the home side’s man of the match. Without him, Real lost some of their momentum. They lost two points, too, conceding a late Atletico equaliser.

Real and Atletico have played each other three times already this calendar year, in three competitions; Brahim has been Real’s jewel in the duels. He came on nine minutes from full-time during a wild Spanish Super Cup semi-final in Riyadh, with Atletico leading 3-2.

A Brahim run opened up the space for an equaliser. A zippy, determined Brahim run and angled strike from 25 yards out sealed a 5-3 win in extra-time. Real went on to win the final against Barcelona.

This is Brahim Abdelkader Diaz’s second spell at Madrid, a fresh peak in a career that, for a player of only 24, has packed in a lot. He was the prodigy scouted by Manchester City at 16 and part of a Premier League-winning campaign before he turned 19.

He had a Liga winners’ medal at the end of his first full season, 2019/20, after joining Madrid. Seeking more regular starts, he joined AC Milan on loan, a deal that was renewed to extend to three seasons in all. He was a key contributor to Milan winning Serie A in 2022 and reaching the Champions League semi-final a year later.

Through much of this hopscotching from one leading club to another, there has been an continuing tug-of-war over Brahim’s senior international career.

He was born in Malaga, Spain, to a Moroccan father and Spanish mother, has represented Spain across several age groups as his career developed and played one senior friendly for Spain in 2021. None of which prohibits him exercising his right, as a Moroccan citizen, to play for the Atlas Lions.

Morocco’s manager, Walid Regragui, has spoken extensively to Brahim, and made persuading the player a priority from almost as soon as he took over the role 18 months ago.

A place in the 2022 World Cup squad was offered to Brahim, but he paused on it. Morocco promptly knocked out his native Spain and then Portugal to make history as the first African or Arab nation in a World Cup semi-final.

Regragui, who has successfully brought in a number of dual-nationals to his Morocco squad, was back in touch with Brahim after the Qatar World Cup.

Brahim explained he felt a genuine dilemma and wanted time to decide between Spain, where his former under-21s coach, Luis de la Fuente, took over as manager last year, and a soaring Morocco. He said the same to De la Fuente.

Both coaches have become weary of the waiting. Regragui can hardly have helped feeling frustrated over the past two weeks, while Brahim was shining for Madrid and Morocco’s Afcon campaign in Ivory Coast was turning sour.

Regragui has long envisaged – and described in detail to the player – the sort of creative role Brahim might play in a Morocco side with a clear shape and structure.

He would be the kind of game-changer that Morocco so lacked this time last week, when, with Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal missing with injury, they were unexpectedly outwitted in Afcon’s last-16 round by South Africa, 2-0 victors over Regragui’s World Cup heroes.

Word from those close to Brahim is the procrastination is soon to end. His Madrid form has convinced De la Fuente that Brahim would be an asset for Spain at this summer’s European Championship.

But, signalling his impatience with the unresolved tug-of-war, De la Fuente said: “Anyone who joins the Spain team has to come with total commitment, and not with the threat of ‘if you don’t pick me, I’ll go somewhere else’.”

Fitness permitting, the plan is that Spain call up Brahim for next month’s internationals, and that he answers “yes”, at the expense of Morocco.

Updated: February 06, 2024, 7:59 AM