We, Moroccans, are usually optimistic and hopeful about our football team, but often, we end up by being very disappointed. Morocco boasts many fine players like Adel Taarabt (who plays for Queens Park Rangers) and Marouane Chamakh (Arsenal). At the same, the Moroccan team has a reputation for not playing as a unit, rather as individual players who prefer to outshine each other on the field. But there are good reasons to expect that this year’s African Cup of Nations (Afcon 2013) will not be as embarrassing as the last for Morocco’s Atlas Lions. So before we stock up on rotten tomatoes and head to the airport to welcome back our team, we should try and consider how things may actually be better this time around.
The team has undergone a makeover, with the firing of coach Eric Gerets (the former Belgian international), the hiring of Rachid Taoussi, along with a squad filled with new talent which appears so far to play a more cohesive game of football. Last year, despite being one of the pre-tournament favorites, the Atlas Lions were eliminated in the first round after losing their first two matches against Tunisia, and Gabon. The bar was set really low at Afcon 2012, so it should not be hard to do better this time around
The selection of a new coach this past September caused quite a national stir. After a 2-0 defeat in a first leg match against Mozambique’s on September 9th, Gerets was fired by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (RMFF) due to poor performance sof the Moroccan team since he took over in 2010. As the RMFF searched for a new coach, 84 percent of fans were hoping that it would select Badou Zaki. Zaki is a former star goal keeper who coached the team from 2002 to 2005, and who managed to lead the Atlas Lions to the Afcon 2004 semifinals against Tunisia. Despite overwhelming preference for Zaki, the RMFF chose Taoussi, a coach without the charisma of Zaki, but who none the less has proven himself as worthy. Taoussi led the MAS of Fez, a Moroccan Club, to win three titles in one year, two of which were African titles: the African Confederation Cup, the African Super Cup, and the Throne Cup. In 1997, Taoussi also led Morocco’s under 20 national team to win the African Youth Championship cup.
Fans were also upset when Taoussi did not select a string of Morocco’s best payers for the national team including Taraabt, Chamakh, Houssine Kharja (Al-Arabi, Qatar) and Mbark Boussoufa (Anzhi Makhachkala, Russia). Taoussi defended his actions by saying he chose to focus on players that would work well as a team: “Before Morocco had players of quality, now we have a team of quality.” He also said “I don’t want players who want to be stars and show off, I want a united team that plays as a team.”
Our team may lack our well known stars, but we still have great players to be proud of. Among them are 25 year old defender Mehdi Benatia (of Udinese in Italy), whose solid performances have been earning him a lot of recognition. Then there is 23 year old Abdelaziz Barrada (Getafe, Spain), And by far the new favorite Younes Belhanda (Montpelier, France), a 22-year old midfielder who for the last few years has caught the attention of many teams across Europe for his drive and goal scoring abilities. Belhanda was reported injured last week, but we’ll see later today if he is included in the starting 11.
An additional factor that gives us a better shot this year is the team composition of our group at Afcon 2013. The teams in Group A are Angola, Cape Verde, and hosts South Africa. We have a chance of winning against Angola as we defeated the Angolans two out of three times in previous encounters (in 2008 and 2009). Cape Verde, is a more tricky proposition. They will be participating for the first time an Afcon finals, is relatively inexperienced with a relatively unknown squad playing at small European clubs. But they also eliminated heavyweights Cameron 2-0 in their final qualifying match for Afcon 2013, so it could prove to be a difficult game, but our experience should enable us to pull it off. Based on the record books, South Africa, though their football is in dismal state right now, has the edge on Morocco. They’ve met in three Afcon tournament matches (1998, 2002, and 2004), with Morocco lost two games, and managing to draw one.
Despite having a new coach with a new strategy, and a different team which includes many new players, it is still hard to know what to expect until Morocco starts playing later today (against Angola). A very positive forecast would see us win against Angola and Cape Verde, and come to a draw with South Africa. Either way, even if we do not get pass the first round, we should be happy that at least we qualified for the tournament.