Article: Daniel Kenu
Morocco fly to Accra today in an Air Force plane for the 26th Africa Nations Cup, paired in Group A together with host Ghana, Guinea and minnows Namibia.
The Moroccans continued their impressive form ahead of the tournament after beating fellow finalists Zambia 2-0 in a warm-up in Fez last Saturday.
Called the Atlas Lions, the 1976 winners of the prestigious Africa Nations Cup have peaked just on time to join the continent’s soccer elite to wrest the title from five-time champions, Egypt.
Last November’s 2-0 win over Senegal in Paris, France, attests to their resurgent form and the main architects of the night — Hicham Aboucherouane and Youssef Mokhtari — will play lead roles as the North African force vies for a slot in the next stage from Group A.
Failing to make it to the Germany 2006 World Cup and also fumbling a couple of times in their build-up to the African championship, including a 0-2 loss to Ghana, also in France, the boys, predominantly youthful players, have shaped up for the battle ahead.
After their first appearance at the FIFA World Cup in 1970, Morocco bounced back in 1986 to become the first African country to go past the first round, and also featured in the 1994 and 1998 editions in the USA and France respectively.
Founded in 1955, Morocco, however, had to wait until 1960 to join the Confederation of African football (CAF) and when they did, it took them 16 years to capture the ultimate. But after that feat in Ethiopia, the closest they came to annexing the championship was in Tunisia when they lost 1-2 to the host country in 2004.
Aside these memorable achievements, the Atlas Lions have failed many a time in their bid to get to the top. Notably, they fumbled in Egypt in the last edition when they were kicked out in the first round.
In between that, the Moroccans have been twice semi-finalists — in 1988 when they hosted the competition and also in 1980 when Nigeria hosted the tournament.
It is also worth mentioning that the North Africans were kicked out at the quarter-final stage in Burkina Faso in 1998, and in all, have played a total of 48 matches since they started participating in the championship. Out of that, they have won 17, drawn 19, lost 21, scored 53 goals and conceded as many as 90.
In spite of Ghana’s pedigree in Group A as four-time winners, records favour Morocco as the lead team to qualify. Apart from Ghana, which have managed two wins against the North Africans in their 11 encounters, none of the other group members — Namibia and Guinea — has ever beaten Morocco.
In those 11 encounters, Morocco have won five against the Black Stars and drawn four times, including that famous 2-2 draw in Kumasi in 1997 in the 1998 France World Cup qualifier.
Against Guinea, Morocco have won four of their six encounters and the two were deadlocked. And in the three meetings with Namibia, Morocco were twice winners and drew once.
So, on paper, the North Africans are far ahead of their group in terms of head-to-head clashes, yet Ghana is revered in terms of their achievements.
Morocco is ranked 39th in the world ahead of the other three teams and their French coach Henri Michel, who has been re-appointed after he was given the boot some time ago, is aware that much would depend on him as the team makes its fifth successive appearance at the competition.
Ex-coach Mohamed Fakhir, who guided the team to their unbeaten record in the qualifiers, was surprisingly relieved of his job and Michel, who, twice in 2000 and 2002, was unsuccessful with the squad at the Nations Cup, is back in the saddle.
Fakhir’s era was fantastic. He built a strong credential for himself with Rabat-based Royal Armed Forces and under him, Morocco became the first to qualify for Ghana 2008 with a maximum of 10 points from Group 12 which included Zimbabwe and Malawi.
Apart from Aboucherouane and Mokhtari, Morocco will also largely depend on Mbark Boussoufa and Maraoune Chamakh who were both born to migrant families in Europe, but have switched nationality to Morocco.
Aside these players and the influential 27-year-old Youssouf Hadji, who plays for French first division side Nancy, the North African team will also rely largely on their young talented Diasporan players from Belgium, France, Holland and the Scandinavian countries.
When Morocco lost 1-2 to Tunisia in the 2004 finals in Tunis, it was Chamakh’s brilliance that contributed greatly to the “success” of the team, and four years down the line, he is expected to play a major role in the team’s desire to recapture the top spot in 30 years.
The Bordeaux player, who will turn 24 at the start of the tournament, is a product of the youth development programme. He hit the limelight at 16 and has since been one of the ‘hit-men’ for Morocco after his debut in 2003.
He has scored some 30 goals for his country and Ghana 2008 will be his third Nations Cup appearance at such a tender age.