The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations is just around the corner. A month from now 24 national football teams, including Morocco’s, will compete in Egypt in hopes of winning the most important sports tournament on the continent.
Rabat – For Moroccan fans, the championship is yet another opportunity to finally see their dream come true: a second trophy for the national team, 43 years after the Atlas Lions won their first and only title.
A close look at the current national team and Moroccan football, in general, suggests that such an ambition are well-founded, now more so than at any time in recent years. Yet, past experiences show that the Atlas Lions tend to disappoint when they are expected to shine.
Could this time be different?. Let us first examine previous poor performances at CAN and why this time we have reasons to be more optimistic, without succumbing to misplaced self-confidence.
A Lion Without A Roar
In 1998 many of us who were kids aged 10, 12, or older were passionate about football. As we grew up and looked back at that period, we realized that we had the privilege to have watched some of the best Moroccan football players in a generation.
Tahar Lakhlej, Abdelkrim El Hadrioui, Mustapha Hadji, Noureddine Naybet, Abdejelil Hada, and Abdelilah Bassir were on a league of their own. During the CAN and World Cup qualifiers and finals, they demonstrated their impressive skills and helped their team to achieve what was probably its best ranking by FIFA so far; at that time, the team was listed among the top 20 teams in the world.
Morocco’s memorable win 3-0 against Scotland and their amazing performance against Norway made millions of Moroccans proud despite our team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2016.
During the CAN finals, we were the only team to beat that year’s champion, Egypt, thanks to an unforgettable double kick by Hadji. Despite having a good chance to win the trophy, Morocco lost to South Africa 2-1 in the quarter-finals while Egypt went on to snatch the cup. The irony is that Egypt had failed to participate in the 1998 World Cup. They were in the same group as Morocco during the qualifiers but our team prevailed.
What we were left with during that year was the good memories of Hadji and Bassir’s wonder goals, while the Egyptian team did what it did best: winning titles. After their 1998 trophy, they added three more in three consecutive tournaments, 2006, 2008 and 2010.
This brings us to a key issue when we talk about Moroccan football. For years we have been kidding ourselves that we are among Africa’s greats and that we have glorious football history while the truth of the matter is that we have only one CAN title and, since 1976, we failed to bring home a second one.
Ironically, our team and our football federation used to care more about participating in the World Cup than winning titles. Moroccan football declined and we performed poorly subsequent CAN tournaments and for 20 years fell short of qualifying for the World Cup.
Over the last two decades participations in CAN usually came after stunning qualifications. So each time we told ourselves: ‘’This is gotta be it. We are going to win this time’’. But it never happened. The only time we were close to doing so was in 2004 when no one was counting on the coach Zaki Badou and his players to reach the final.
In November 2007 our squad forced a French team into a 2-2 draw on home soil during a friendly game which made us think that the Lions were unstoppable. A few months later, after they scored a crushing 5-1 victory over Namibia during their first game in CAN, our team lost the two other matches, 2-3 to Guinea and 0-2 to Ghana.
In 2011 the Moroccan football team’s 4-0 victory over neighboring rival Algeria sent thousands of happy fans to the street. They thought their players were set to win CAN the following year.
However, a surprising defeat against Tunisia, followed by another loss to the host country Gabon, brought back some home truths: our national team does not deliver in big events such CAN finals, unlike friendly games and qualifiers in which they give the illusion that they can win it all.
Years of accumulated disappointments made Moroccan fans transition from anger to sarcasm, often joking that their team does not deserve its nickname: The Atlas Lions.
In Good Shape
Over the past two years, our football could not have been better. Our national squad performed well during the last CAN and managed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 20 years. The team also proved to be a worthy adversary to two of the best teams in the world, Spain and Portugal.
Major achievements included winning trophies such as the 2018 African Nations Championship (CHAN) title, which Morocco claimed after an impressive winning streak. Local clubs have shined continentally. Wydad snatched the 2017 African Champions League Cup while Raja took home the CAF Cup the following year. Both teams and long-time rivals won the CAF Super Cup.
This year, Wydad and RS Berkane are preparing to take on the Esperance of Tunis (The Hope of Tunisia) and the Egyptian team of Zamalek in the tournament’s two finals.
Our clubs and sports officials seem to be more focused on winning. Morocco has become an influential CAF member and our Football Federation’s current president, Faouzi Lakjaa, clearly knows more about the game than his predecessor, Ali Fassi El Fihri, whose term was characterized by a failure to qualify to the 2014 World Cup, a poor performance at the CAN 2012, and the infamous signing of Eric Gerets as Morocco’s manager.
The Belgian had no experience in coaching national teams and was also reportedly paid €250,000 a month, the highest in the world.
By contrast, Hervé Renard is a two-time CAN winning coach. He is someone who knows African football intimately and has managed to create a strong team that has given Moroccans hope that we can win the continental title.
Could our team finally make that happen? Let us hope for the best while remaining cautious, as past experiences remind us not to get carried away by too much enthusiasm before the Atlas Lions are put to the test.