On paper, Morocco’s Atlas Lions are among this year’s Afcon favorites. But favoritism and perceived lack of cooperation in the team may shatter Moroccans’ championship dreams.
This has meant that millions of Moroccans fell in love with Lions and raised their expectations of a squad that has often left them down, hoping that the current team could be the deal, the one to deliver the continental crown that has eluded the country since 1976.
Increasingly, Moroccan fans have grown into the belief the Moroccan national team will confirm its status as major African team and win the upcoming African Cup of Nations.
But the team’s less enthusiastic performances in most of its recent games, the defeat in a friendly game against Gambia on Wednesday and against Zambia on Sunday, have cast doubt about the Moroccan Lions’ capability to bring joy to the Moroccan people as early as this summer by winning the ultimate continental showpiece. .
Hamdallah brazen unprofessionalism
What is even more worrying is not the performance in the latest friendly matches, but the apparent lack of cohesiveness between some players and the alleged existence of clans within the national team.
That striker Abdellah Hamadallah decided to leave the national team’s training camp in an instant outburst of petulance and unprofessionalism all of a sudden and just 10 days ahead of the start of one of the most eventful continental contest, suggests that something is wrong with the way the team is being handled by head coach Hervé Renard.
There is no doubt that Hamadallah’s decision to leave the national squad at such a critical juncture was wrong, and potentially damaging for the hopes and dreams of the millions of Moroccans he must have always nourished a desire to play for. He should have been more professional and overcome all the obstacles he might have faced since he joined the camp on June 1.
A player of his drive and talent should have known better than slamming the door in the face of the national team less than a week before a career-defining contest. Moreover, for the sake of national pride and the pristine joy and smiles and passion of millions of ones’ compatriots, he should have sidelined some petty considerations.
Perhaps the player might have felt a sense of lost cause for his national cap aspirations despite his performances and because of his status as a newcomer in a group where most of the players have regularly featured in Renard’s three-year tenure. There have been reports that neither the head coach nor the veteran players welcomed Hamadallah with the usual warmth for such occasions.
Hervé Renard’s favoritism
Since he was entrusted with the national team in March 2016, Renard has rarely relied on Moroccan players who play in the national league. The Frenchman flaunts a preference for those who play outside of Morocco.
In some of the most disheartening instances of Renard’s coaching bias, he has often preferred players in second divisions of some European leagues at the expense of the comparably more skilled, in shape, and sometimes more experienced, players who happen to play in the national league.
Unless a player is a favorite of Renard’s, it appears, playing in a non-European league is a limiting factor, even if that means calling on out-of-shape and inexperienced European leagues players who, in normal circumstances, should not be playing for the national team at a highly competitive tournament.
This was the case even in the CAN 2017. After the last-minute injuries of Soufian Boufal, Younes Belhanda and Noureddine Amrabat, Renard replaced them with out-of-shape players such as Mehdi Carcela, Omar Kaddouri, and Youssef Bouhaddouz, a newcomer who played in the German’s league second division when Renard’s call came.
Renard is apparently adopting the same approach for this year’s Africa Cup, which might explain Hamadallah’s decision to leave the national team’s camp. Despite his stellar performances in the Qatari league where he was a major goal scorer and most recently in the Saudi league where he finished the year as the top goal scorer, Hamadallah remained unqualified for a call up to feature in Renard’s squad.
According to reports from the inner circles of the FRMF, Renard called on Hamadallah only after the pressure he has been subjected from the President of Moroccan football federation, Fouzi Lekjaa.
Many argue that Hamadallah’s decision to leave the national squad was the consequence of Faiçal Fajr unfriendly behavior towards him during the friendly against Gambia. That incident brought into the spotlight some downsides of Renard’s management’s philosophy and the criteria he uses in selecting players who represent Morocco.
When manager Herve Renard’s criteria of selection becomes favoritism, player-pleasing and loyalty to those who have played with him for the longest time instead of reliance shape and skills at the moment of selection, the result is failure.
No good is to be expected from this team. This coach, and players like Fayçal Fajr, Khalid Boutaib, and Mbark Boussoufa, Nabil Dirar, who have gained the coach’s trust and favor over other more qualified players for no reason other than their long-lasting collaboration are sure to disappoint fans at this year’s CAN.
All Moroccan fans watched how Fayçal Fajr, who had not played more than a few matches for the national team, started acting as if he owns the squad, and how he snatched the ball from the team’s main attacking player, Abderrazak Hamdallah, to recklessly take the penalty kick against Gambia.
Fajr failed to score that golden chance for an equalizer, adding insult to injury for a team hungry for a morale boost before taking on the upcoming CAN’s most lethal group stage.
Fans of the national team are wondering why coach Renard continues to rely on Khalid Boutaib despite his lack of competitiveness, his recent recovery from injury, and his loss of official status with his Egyptian club, Zamalek.
After the three goals he scored against Gabon in October 2017, the Zamalek man become the undisputed owner of the Moroccan team’s attacking seat. It seems as though Renard has definitely and irreversibly handed Boutaib the keys of the Moroccan attack.
After taking the spotlight in that 2017 match, Boutaib’s spark faded in the rest of his matches with the national team, except for the one goal he scored against Spain at the latest World Cup. But the series of poor displays and laughable lack of clinical instincts in key, match-winning moments have not been enough to convince Renard that his loyal man may not be the right man.
As for Boussoufa, despite his age and lack of competitive playing time (he has not played for over six months until last January), he seems to have officially and indefinitely leased his place in the team while other players, with more capability of enriching the Moroccan national team, are sidelined.
Nobody can deny that Boussouffa has done a lot for the national team since he joined it for the first time in 2006. But at 34 of age and after over six months without playing a match, his fitness is highly questionable.
Renard’s team management for more than three years clearly shows that he gives preference to Moroccan players coming from European leagues over players from the national championship or Moroccan professionals who have stood out in the Moroccan championship before signing for foreign clubs.
After the childish and unprofessional behavior of Fayçal Fajr in the friendly match against Gambia, the coach and the football federation had to punish him and exclude him from the team because such actions show a lack of cooperation, and mutual respect among the team members or at least some of them.
Many Moroccans deplore that there are still clueless players such as Khalid Boutaib, Mbarek Boussoufa, Fayçal Fajr, and Marouane da Costa in a team boasting names such as Hakim Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi, Noussair Mazraoui, Sofiane Boufal, Yassine Bounou and Noureddine Amrabat. But an even more jarring realization has been that players of the national championship such as Walid El Karti, Ismail Haddad, and Mohcine Yajour, who have a lot African experience and have contributed to winning continental titles for their teams in the last two years, are overlooked.
After the poor performance of the national team in this week’s friendly matches, the childish behavior of Fayçal Fajr, and the withdrawal of Abderrazak Hamdallah from the team camp, Moroccans no longer nurture any hopes for the team to honor in the upcoming CAN 2019. Nor do they expect much of a coach who relies on favoring his friends and on players with no respect for teamwork to defend the national shirt.