With an unlikely defeat against Benin, Morocco became the first big favorite to leave this year’s CAN.
Rabat- This, then, is the end of Morocco’s much-reported footballing Renaissance. As Morocco shattered the doubts and reservations of skeptics, topping its group, the question, increasingly, became: Can Atlas Lions really make it happen this year?
However, after yet another mind-shattering, frustrating early exit, everything changes for the Atlas Lions, changing the question to: all that for this? Or, more plainly, how much longer will Moroccans have to wait to go past the apparently oversized, lofty hopes of another continental glory?
Morocco struggled hard here against Benin, and in the end the Atlas Lions’ superior class, courtesy of its higher number of difference-making, elite players proved helpless against a “playable” and unthreatening Beninese side.
As Stéphane Sessegnon, the Benin captain, looked in disbelief, flabbergasted by the referee’s call for a penalty at the end of normal time, the Moroccan bench was tumultuously joyous, already taking delight in the prospect, yet again, of another winning last-minute goal.
Hakim Ziyech, the Moroccan playmaker who had so far been underwhelming and unrecognizable in this tournament, stood to take the penalty, eyes fixed in the air, contemplating the gravity of the moment, of the historic responsibility which he was being handed.
As the Ajax man positioned himself, carrying on his shoulders the exultant passion of millions of Moroccans, Moroccan fans at the Cairo stadium reacted as thunderously as they could. But Ziyech’s shot hit the woodwork instead, changing the direction of the premature celebration.
Benin exulted, not believing that, in the course of seconds, the gods of football, who had seemed to have deserted them, had changed their mind in the end, keeping the Squirrels’ hopes alive. Football has a way of making plain one of the most axiomatic precepts of life, of living: Until the final whistle is blown, nothing is irreversibly lost, and anything is possible.
The first half was a one-man show, with all the paraphernalia of humdrum and frustration that such one-sided displays entail.
Unsure of how to unsettle a Moroccan squad that has been threatening in attack and vastly solid in defense, Benin spent the entire first half trying to find the confidence and rhythm that helped them force their way through the last-16.
Even so, however, it is difficult to say that Morocco impressed as they sustained the 45-minute-long one man show, tirelessly looking for the final moment, the inspiration to make the show count.
The Moroccan pressure was in full display in a quick succession of momentous actions in the 10th through to the 17th minute. Twice, Ziyech had a ball which, under the normal conditions that have made him the key man of this team, he could have played in a more charming way.
But twice, the Ajax man missed his shots, the first going wide in the Cairo sky and the second on target but not enough to unsettle Saturnin Allagbe, the Benin keeper.
And there were endless crosses, from Nabil Diyar and Achraf Hakimi, and Amrabat. And there were more shots from distance—all of this highlighting that while Morocco played well, kept possession, Benin’s bus was just impeccably parked, allowing no threatening intrusion in their defense.
Meanwhile, for all its commanding composure when blocking Morocco’s endless attempts at goal, Benin lacked confidence and enterprise in the few minutes when they had possession. As the first half ticked away, there was a tremendous disparity between Benin’s dull but reassuring group games and its controlled, but wavering and uncertain, performance tonight—at least in the first half.
Even if it was not entirely different from the first, the second half was relatively livelier, with Benin now intermittently trying to make something happen.
Benin was sporadic in attacking; but when they came, mildly banking on a well-organized Moroccan defense, they now seemed to be imbued with a quality they showed no sign of in the previous minutes: belief. Slowly, they were starting to realize that perhaps, just perhaps, this could end up going their way.
They played as one prays: not sure whether they would be granted what they asked for, but trying all the same, with the unrelenting religious zeal, an unfailing faith in the reality that God’s answer always comes when you least expect it.
For those of us who had thought that this was an unbalanced confrontation, an encounter of foregone conclusion between a continental favorite that won all three of its matches and a plucky underdog that made its way here through sweat and blood—and a bit of luck, Morocco’s inefficiency in front of goal was starting to suggest that maybe another upset was possible here.
There was fury, exhaustion, and unrestrained efforts. In some queer kind of way, however, this, ultimately, was yet another vindication of what skeptic Moroccans had been cautioning all along, unconvinced by the fuss over Morocco having all it takes to be champions this year.
For all the fuss and the Renaissance-fused sense of “this time will be ours,” skeptics had pointed out, albeit inaudibly—victory can indeed make one blind to the most glaring of suggestions—that scoring three laborious, luck-soaked goals to make it to the next round was no harbinger of a certain Renaissance to come.
And so there had been calls for Moroccan players to upgrade their performance; to be more clinical in defining, game-killing moments; to be more present—to actually score, you know, at least one third of their many chances.
With baffling banality, though, especially as Moise Adilehou stunned Morocco at the 53rd minute, Benin now taking the lead, the Moroccan Lions’ furious ball-passing fluency and tactical cohesion looked uncannily impotent, unable to break the spines of a now organized, unwaveringly disciplined Benin.
But Morocco did, in the end, score the equalizing goal, soothing the growing frustration among their fans. En-Nesyri’s 75th minute goal, if anything, rejuvenated Morocco’s faith, convincing them that they could still make it.
Then came the penalty, the one action that Hakim Ziyech is sure to dwell on for months; and also, of course, the moment that Moroccans will have in the back of their minds: a missed penalty that could have prolonged their continental aspirations.
With Benin now reduced to 10 men after Khaled Adenon’s red car, the scope of Morocco’s coming victory grew even more incontestable.
Having completely dominated before the red car, Morocco now simply had to keep the same momentum and force Benin into making mistakes. For the 30 minutes of extra-time, entirely played in the second half, each minute was pregnant with the suggestion, or the hope, or the apprehension, that the Lions’ winning goal was somehow coming, just around the corner. But that last-minute liberating moment never came here.
In Tunisia 15 years ago, Morocco gave Benin a smacking, tearing them apart 4-0 and exhausting them in the process. But here, while it looked like Morocco would prevail, the Lions had to pour in every single drop of their energy, and strain every last inch of their attacking arsenal. Here, Benin was exhausted; but so was Morocco.
The Squirrels wavered in crucial moments, the illustration being the defensive gaffe that led to Morocco’s equalizer. But so did Morocco, statically dominant but giving no encouraging signs as to the final victory. And at times, the Moroccan Lions looked like the antithesis par excellence of the born again squad they have often embodied under Renard.
As Morocco goes through another excruciating, soul-searching moment after yet another spirit-crushing exit from the Africa Cup of Nations, it will be tempting to castigate the team, or to say that, anyway, they have never been much of an encouraging side.
But this would miss the bulk of the point. Another theory, more compelling, is that the level of football has staggeringly improved across the continent over the years. Morocco was brilliant here, but liberation eluded them. Or perhaps Benin was just a well-disciplined side that gave Morocco’s world-class players no space to fully express their class.
There are moments in football that cannot be pinned down to one single factor; they shun reductionist descriptions and require nuance, complexity. Sometimes, explanation does not help. So you have to let the moment sink in, feeling or not, living or not, the indescribable pain of always having to be that favorite who never even makes it to the semi-finals, much less win the whole thing.
The Atlas Lions will have to wait for another continental crown; what is hard to tell, though, is what the fans will make of decades of sustained passion that always ends up in disappointment, and of unconditional support never really rewarded.