By Jamal Laoudi
Washington D.C.– With the early exit of Morocco’s national team, dubbed the Atlas Lions, from the 2018 Russia World Cup, Moroccan fans have shifted their attention to dissecting what went wrong.
What makes this question interesting is the gladiator nature of Morocco’s effort and performance in this tournament. They had the giant Portugal, with Ronaldo and his 5 Ballon d’Or honors, on their knees, but simply could not deliver a swift blow.
Moroccan supporters will point to poor referring as the main reason. While that claim holds some water, there is a pattern that has plagued Morocco every time it partakes in a world cup, and this tournament is no different. Morocco always manages to find a way to shoot itself in the foot.
In its first World Cup appearance in 1970, Morocco had an okay showing given the game was, comparatively, severely underdeveloped in the country. They lost to Germany and Peru, two powerhouses at the time, and tied Bulgaria. They were first to score against Germany only to lose at the end, and lost 3-0 to Peru. They did not make it past the first round, but managed to get 1 point. No controversy here.
In 1986, Morocco topped its group with 4 points, having maneuvered through the giants of the time: England, Portugal, and Poland. In the round of 16, Morocco was eliminated by Germany with a 1-0 score. Germany’s goal was earned on a free kick in minute 88, just two minutes away from the end of regulation.
If that outcome was expected on paper, the performances of both teams did not reflect it. Morocco was as much in the game as Germany was. It came down to a mistake in wall-placement after the referee whistled a free kick. German legend Lothar Matthaus exploited the hole, and Morocco was out of the tournament in round 2.
Moving on to the 1994 World Cup. Up until then, FIFA had been using the two-point system. In the group stage, a team got 2 points for a win, 1 point for a tie, and 0 points for a loss. But in that tournament, it had moved to the 3-point award system, giving teams 3 points for a win, while draws and losses rest remained unchanged.
In the 1994 World Cup, despite losing its first game with a score of 1-0 against Belgium, Morocco had a great game and quite a few missed opportunities. One such memorable opportunity came when Morocco’s center forward, Chaouch, hit the ball into the crossbar after a perfect pass from the right side, courtesy of the elusive midfielder Bahja, who had come in as a substitute.
But it was a game against Saudi Arabia that did Morocco in. The Lions’ supporters were outraged. They blamed their goalkeeper for failing to stop a meager shot coming from 30-plus yards. That loss proved unforgivable. Morocco ended up exiting the tournament, at the bottom of the group, with zero points. That was its worst World Cup participation to date.
Moving on to 1998, Morocco’s exit was also in the first round, but it was a heartbreaker. They tied Norway, lost to Brazil, and beat Scotland convincingly with a 3-0 final score.
The game of interest is the 2-2 tie with Norway. Norway’s first goal was courtesy of Moroccan midfielder, Youssef Chippo, who headed the ball into his own net while attempting to clear it out. The own-goal came in the dying minutes of the first half.
As for the World Cup in Russia, it is the same old broken record. An own goal by Morocco against Iran in its first game in the 95th minute cost them the game. Center forward Aziz Bouhaddouz, who came in as a substitute in the 77th minute, dove to clear an Iranian cross from a free kick, only to see it inside his own net. “We were crucified,” Lions’ coach Hervé Renard commented. This one, also, proved harsh. Morocco found itself out of the tournament with 0 points after only two games.
The moral of the story is that the World Cup requires nerves of steel. To get attention, you need to be able to hang with the big boys. And to win it, you need to be a big boy!