By Zineb El Houari with Morocco
It has taken Morocco 20 years to make their return to the FIFA World Cup™. Two decades of broken dreams, disappointments and doubts before the Atlas Lions put an end to their long spell in the wilderness.
It is a historic moment for Moroccan football, one engineered in the main by the national team’s French coach Herve Renard, a man who is never slow to take on a challenge.
A two-time winner of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations – the only coach to have lifted the trophy with different countries – and a specialist in African football, Renard booked his first trip to the world finals thanks to his side’s defeat of Côte d’Ivoire in Abidjan in November last year.
It was a victory that ended his own ten-year wait for a place on the biggest stage of them all. “My happiest memory of it all is going back to Morocco after that win,” said the Frenchman, who secured the African title with Zambia in 2012 and Côte d’Ivoire in 2015. “They were days that I will always remember.”
FACTS AND FIGURES
- Renard took on the Morocco job in February 2016.
- Hadji scored 12 goals in making 63 appearances for Morocco between 1993 and 2002.
- Morocco’s biggest World Cup win was a 3-0 defeat of Scotland at France 1998.
It was a moment that no doubt reminded Morocco fans of the happiness they felt at France 1998, when the Atlas Lions last graced the world finals, thanks to a hugely talented generation of players. The leader of that gifted side was the playmaker Mustapha Hadji. Now an assistant coach to Renard, he believes the current side has much in common with the 1998 vintage: “There’s a solidity and togetherness about this team, which are exactly the qualities that made us so strong.”
Defensive and attacking strengths
Morocco were the only one of the five African qualifiers not to concede a goal in the third and final round of the CAF preliminaries, thanks to a well-drilled defence marshalled by team captain Mehdi Benatia. The Atlas Lions have much to offer at the other end of the pitch too, as they showed in scoring 11 goals in the third round, four of them coming from Khalid Boutaib.
Morocco will need all their defensive and attacking know-how if they are to emerge from a challenging group that also features Iran, Portugal and Spain. As far as Renard is concerned, they are more than capable of achieving that objective. “It’s not a case of just being happy to be here,” said the French tactician, whose side are on an 18-match unbeaten run and now stand on the brink of creating more history to go with their predecessors’ ground-breaking run at Mexico 1986. It was there that Morocco beat Portugal en route to becoming the first ever African side to reach the second round.
The golden generations of 1986 and 1998 showed the way for the Atlas Lions, and the new breed of 2018 are intent on following in their tracks.