Rabat – As his first challenges loom large on Morocco’s footballing horizons in the forms of two friendly matches in quick successions, on September 6 against Burkina Faso and September 10 against Niger, Vahid Halilhodzic, the new head coach of Morocco’s Atlas Lions appears to ooze an elegant mixture of reserve and confidence.
Two weeks after he was appointed to take Moroccan football to new heights in terms of trophy delivery and consistency in performance and energy levels, Coach Halilhodzic is bound to go into the upcoming friendly games with a state of mind above the traditional, not-such-a-big-deal kind of energy that friendly games usually induce.
While the two games are not of any particular consequence for Morocco’s standing in the footballing world, they provide the first litmus test for whether the new coach can fill the shoes of his illustrious, charismatic predecessor.
With Herve Renard in command, Morocco played spectacularly well on countless occasions but fell short on delivering on the biggest occasions. In signing Halilodzic, the hope is to keep the sense of style and fluidity in playing, while coupling it with the much-needed sense of clinical, goal scoring instincts.
In other words, in place of the boundlessly talented but sometimes self-indulgent Renard-coached Atlas Lions, an essential part of Halilhodzic challenge will be to put in place a team that can manage to win even when they are suffering, either suffocated by the opposition’s superiority or unnerved by an underdog that refuses to play, as was the case when they played with Benin recently.
Having already made public his list of select players for the two friendlies, Halilhodzic is due to grace Moroccan fans and football commentators with yet another gift. On Thursday, just hours before his first test as Atlas Lions’ manager, the newly appointed coach will unveil his master plan for Moroccan football.
Will he adopt some of his predecessor’s tactics? Will such and such players still be around? Who will be the creative minds, the necessary shields, and the indispensable in Halilhodzic’s starting squad? Will some players be as untouchable as they were under Herve Renard or will the new coach bets on a performance-based philosophy, choosing players on the basis of their current shape rather than on familiarity with other players and other extra-performance criteria?
These and many other questions—similar or not—are set to be the talking points as the Franco-Bosnian coach faces passionate Atlas Lions supporters and recently disappointed Moroccan sports journalists this Thursday.
15 minutes, which is the time Morocco’s Royal Football Federation (FRMF) has set for the press conference, will naturally be insufficient for laying out a detailed, elegant coaching philosophy. But no one expects specific, detailed answers at this point.
Rather, no matter who asks the questions on Thursday or how they ask them, what most want to know is how different the Atlas Lions will be under Halilhodzic, or whether the Bosnian can really succeed where his French predecessor, a rock star in African football, failed repeatedly.
Whatever the answers, and regardless of the rhetorical technique Halilhodzic uses to provide them, the performance on the ground in the two matches will be the ultimate response to the myriad of queries clouding the footballing judgment of Atlas Lions Fans after a soul-crushingly early elimination from their most recent tournament.
There will be no trophy to win on September 6 and 10, neither will the two games be an occasion for qualifying for a major tournament. This, however, should be no reason to sniff at the games, or—at least as far as the coach and his players are concerned—to drop the standards, or take the whole exercise for granted.
At stake will be the fight for winning back the unconditional love of visibly distraught Moroccan supporters. Some are already suggesting—and somewhat rightly—that, at heart, what Moroccans want from this post-Renard squad is a new, radical departure from their languid performance at the recent Africa Cup of Nations.
Meanwhile, as far as FRMF is concerned, the terms of the contract with Halilhodzic could not have been clearer. Explicitly mentioned goals in the contract include qualification for the semi-finals of the 2021 CAN, qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and winning the 2023 CAN.
As Moroccan football strives to end a three-decade cycle of disappointments and what ifs, Halilhodzic knows what he signed up for when he accepted Morocco’s call. “Coaching Morocco is a big responsibility and an honor,” he said during a press conference immediately after he was appointed. “My first objective is to qualify for the World Cup. I will try to qualify a fourth consecutive national team.”
The Bosnian understands, as does his new team’s new technical director, that the whole point of his appointment is to catapult Morocco to the type of footballing heights and glories that have always seemed doable, achievable, but have consistently managed to go to others, to elude Morocco.
Halilhodzic is cut from the same cloth as Renard, boasting a varied coaching experience and winning across continents. Some may even say that is slightly better and more experienced than his younger predecessor, having made his marks both as a player, but also as a successful and revered coach for many clubs and national teams.
But whether the Bosnian will eclipse Renard and succeed where the Frenchman failed is too soon to tell. Nevertheless, his first results and his team’s morale in those early games will provide ample clues as to whether Halilhodzic’s Morocco will be any different from Renard’s.