Rebirth of a footballing nation Part III: The Atlas Lions

Expectations are high from Morocco Football Team who have qualified for World Cup 2018.

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With the FIFA World Cup a few days away, we return with another of our Rebirth series in this, with yet another resurrected African team.

Other than Egypt(who had been qualifying for each of the Olympics since 1920) only Tunisia had qualified for the Olympic Games(1960) from Africa. In 1964 the Moroccan Football Team first came into prominence when they became jointly the third African team in history to qualify for the Olympic Games (alongside Ghana).
Morocco finished 13th out of the 14 nations in Tokyo 1964, after losing both their group league matches against eventual Gold Medallists Hungary and Yugoslavia. After a 0-6 thumping against the Hungarians, the Moroccans revived some pride when Ali Bouachra scored their first ever Olympic goal against Yugoslavia in a 1-3 losing effort.

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6 years later Morocco created history when they became the first African team since Egypt(1934) to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. They got the better of Nigeria and Sudan to book their tickets to Mexico 1970. Clubbed in group 4 with former champions West Germany, Peru and Bulgaria, the débutantes faced the 1954 champions in their opening match.

Morocco shocked the world when their star forward Houmane Jarir put them ahead against the Germans. Sadly two second-half goals broke Moroccan hearts, saving West German blushes. In their second game, they were outplayed by the Peruvians after losing 0-3 ensuring their exit. In their final game of the tournament, Morocco salvaged the first ever African world cup point with a 1-1 draw against Bulgaria; Maouhoub Ghazouani equalized for the North-West African Nation. Their brave display was lauded all across.

2 years later, the Atlas Lions qualified for their first ever African Cup of Nations in Cameroon. Jose Barinaga’s side were eliminated in the first round following three 1-1 draws against eventual champions Congo, Zaire and Sudan.

Abdellah Settati succeeded as head coach and led the national team to the Olympics at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Morocco Team created history by qualifying to the second round after finishing second in a group consisting of the USA, West Germany and Malaysia. After a goalless draw against the USA and a 0-3 defeat against the Germans, Morocco needed a 2-0 win against Malaysia to qualify for the next round; Morocco won 6-0 to qualify. Ahmed Faras scored a brace, with Mohamed El Filali, Mohamed Tati and Boujemaa Benkhrif scoring one each on the night.
They finished 8th after losing all 3 games in the second round against Poland, Soviet Union and Denmark.

In 1974, after failing to qualify for the African Cup of Nations, newly appointed Romanian manager Virgil Mărdărescu led the Lions to qualification to the 1976 AFCON. Morocco went undefeated throughout to capture their first continental silverware. Star forward Ahmed Faras became a household name in Morocco after that.

They did not enjoy too much success in the competitions in the coming years, finishing 3rd in 1980 and 4th in each of the 1984 and 1988 editions. Their only worthy performance came again in 2004 when they lost in the final to Tunisia.

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Morocco qualified for the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico under Brazilian Jose Mehdi Faria. They were drawn in a tough Group with European trio of England, Poland and Portugal. After two hard-earned 0-0 draws each against England and Poland, Morocco defeated Portugal 3-1 courtesy a brace from Abderrazak Khairi and a Merry Krimau goal. In the process, Morocco become the first ever African nation to go beyond the Group Stages of the World Cup topping Group F!
They put up a valiant effort in the knockouts before going down to West Germany (again!) 0-1. The Moroccan Players were given heroes welcome back home.

Meanwhile, they qualified for the Olympics in 1984, 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2012 finishing never once going beyond the group stages. They only won 2 matches in between – against Saudi Arabia in 1984 and Iraq in 2004.

After their superb run in the 1986 World Cup, Morocco again returned to Football’s biggest stage in 1994 in the United States under the tutelage of Abdellah Blinda. Unfortunately, Abdellah’s men lost all 3 of their group league matches against Belgium, Holland and Saudi Arabia scoring only 2 while conceding 5.

Superstar French Manager Henri Michel took charge of the team soon after and led Morocco back to the big stage 4 years later in France. Pitted against Norway, Scotland and defending champions Brazil, Morocco had their tasks cut out.
Mustapha Hadji and Abdeljalil Hadda scored in their opening game against Norway where they couldn’t capitalize despite leading twice. Morocco lost against Brazil 0-3 in the next game. They thought they were on their way to the second round for the first time since 1986 after a brace from Salaheddine Bassir and an Abdeljalil Hadda strike gave them a 3-0 victory over Scotland. But Norway’s surprise 2-1 victory against Brazil meant the Scandinavians qualified at their expense.

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Moroccans missed going to Korea-Japan in 2002 when Senegal qualified from their qualifying Group C on goal difference as well as better head to head record.

4 years later they were again agonisingly close, as neighbours Tunisia qualified from their group by just 1 point margin.

In 2010, Morocco missed out after finishing last in their qualifying group that saw Cameroon qualify.

Morocco did not even make the final rounds of qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

In 2016 Frenchman Herve Renard was appointed the manager for the national team. The former two times African Cup of Nations winning manager with Zambia(2012) and Ivory Coast(2015), led the nation to its first knockouts in the AFCON since 2004, in 2017.

Morocco were grouped with Ivory Coast, Mali and Gabon in the final round of CAF qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. After two goalless draws against Gabon and Ivory Coast, Morocco sprang to life with a 6-0 victory over Mali. After another goalless draw against Mali in the return leg, Herve Renard’s side defeated Gabon 3-0 at home.

A shock 1-2 defeat for Ivory Coast against Gabon in the 4th match day meant, Morocco needed a draw in their final qualifier against the Ivorians at Abidjan.

But the undefeated Moroccans showed great character in front of a 32000 away crowd. First-half goals from Nabil Dirar and captain Mehdi Benatia ensured that the Atlas Lions were once again back on the grandest stage after 20 long years.

The draw, however, wasn’t too favourable for them as it saw them grouped with Favourites and neighbours Spain and Portugal alongside Asian powerhouses Iran.

Fans all around the world and back home in Morocco will only hope that the rebirth of the great African Footballing nation will once again leave another long lasting impression in Russia this summer.

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