Lions of the Atlas stride on Russia

By Danny Wyn Griffith

“No possible, Sir,” the security guard replies, as I stand outside the heavily fortified Stade de Marrakech, willing a way in to see the modern, multi-use stadium at close sight. However, today it wasn’t to be.

The stadium is surrounded by high-walls, then a car-park, which is also surrounded by walls. It resembles a jail, not a football stadium.

I was in Marrakech for a long weekend and had decided to venture to the stadium on a Sunday afternoon. Situated 12km outside the city centre, the taxi ride may seem like a waste of Moroccan dirham, but the insight gained by talking to my elder Berber driver, Hassim, was well worth the money.

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Stade de Marrakech.. from afar.

Berbers are indigenous to North Africa and known for their welcoming nature. He chatted in awe of the Moroccan side that had just qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. They’d dispatched of Ivory Coast the previous week to secure their place. This would be their first World Cup finals appearance since France ’98.

Twenty years is a long time, yet five tournaments on, the Lions of the Atlas head towards FIFA’s big show once more.

Mayhem encapsulated Marrakech and the rest of Morocco when qualification was guaranteed. People lunging out of car windows, singing and dancing. Scenes of pure joy. Moroccan football was back on the map.

The man responsible for all of this was Hervé Renard. The Frenchman had turned the nation’s fortunes on its head since joining in February 2016. However, he nearly never made it this far. Eight months in he was linked with the Algeria role. Uproar was caused, so much so the Algeria Football Federation (FAF) president Mohamed Raouraoua felt the need to release an assertive statement denying all wrongdoing.

Raouraoua told the FAF website at the time: “I categorically state that we have never contacted Herve Renard and not even when he was unemployed about the Algeria coaching post. It is not our usual practice to contact a manager under the employment of another federation. We will never engage in such an irresponsible and unacceptable act.”

This, seemingly, could have derailed Hervé Renard’s early progress as Morocco manager. Renard, however, is made of sterner stuff.

Twice a winner of the African Cup of Nations, firstly with unfancied Zambia in 2012 and then with the Ivory Coast in 2015, his focus and knack of identifying the right pegs for the right holes at international level is admirable.

His Morocco squad, not a dire one by a long way, responded to each and every one of his demands during World Cup qualifying.

A tough core, made up of experienced Bayern Munich defender Medhi Benatia, Feyenoord’s tough-tackling central midfielder Karim el-Ahmadi and Nordin Amrabat, formerly of Watford, now of Leganés, was complimented by flair players such as Ajax hotshot Hachim Zyiech, the crucial Gabon hat-trick hero, Khalid Boutaib, and Younes Belhanda, who has so far impressed with Galatasaray since joining in the summer.

But it was neither of the above who had their names printed on replica shirts sold along Marrakech’s many streets. It was Fayçal Fajr.

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Fayçal Fajr amongst Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi.

You may not have previously heard his name, yet locals revered when Fajr was mentioned – as did Hassim, the Berber taxi driver.

Born and raised in France, the 29-year-old has spent the last four years playing his football in the Spanish La Liga. At Deportivo La Coruna since 2015, last summer he found himself moving to Getafé on a free transfer. During Hervé Renard’s early spell in charge, it was his dead-ball prowess that proved the difference all too often as they struggled to break down the opposition.

In a team full of attacking prowess, it was Fayçal Fajr who became the cult-hero amongst the Moroccan fans.

For those who followed the English Premier League in the 1990s, you may remember another Moroccan descending on Coventry City and instantly becoming treasured.

Mustapha Hadji played for the Sky Blues between 1999 and 2001 and is highly-regarded by fans that watched him at Highfield Road. He signed for a Coventry City side who were then managed by Gordon Strachan. Having impressed at France ’98, the Sky Blues paid a then club-record £4million fee for his gifts.

He became one of the unpredictable stars of late 90s Premier League football, starring for Coventry City before their 34-year stay in the top flight came to an end in 2000/01 and he left for Aston Villa. Perhaps Morocco’s upcoming World Cup appearance might unearth another player of Hadji’s ilk for the Premier League.

The previous day, I travelled 150km northeast of Marrakech to a region called Ouzoud, surrounded by the Atlas Mountains. It holds Morocco’s highest waterfall and the region’s beauty cannot be overstated. During the three-hour ride back, the van driver stopped for a break at a roadside coffee shop.

“Thirty minutes break,” he said whilst ordering his coffee, before positioning himself in front of a big screen showing the Coupe du Trône final. Difaâ El Jadida faced Raja Casablanca, north of Marrakech in a city called Rabat.

Our van driver stressed it was in fact ‘The King’s Cup’. Played at the Stade Prince Moulay Abdallah, an old-fashioned stadium with no roof, similar to the old Vicente Calderón, it looked packed to the rafters and full of atmosphere. Raja Casablanca prevailed on penalties. Our van driver seemed satisfied.

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Coupe du Trône final: Difaâ El Jadida v Raja Casablanca

From national team success, through to passionate locals and packed stadiums, Moroccan football seems in decent enough health. And further good news was on the horizon in the week that followed qualification.

After climbing eight places in October’s FIFA rankings, the Moroccan squad managed to climb an additional eight in November’s list, to be placed 40th in the world and fifth in the African continent.

Reports suggest Morocco will face five friendlies prior to next summer’s World Cup. Manager Hervé Renard wants his team to play against two European and a Latin American squad to evaluate his players’ strengths and weaknesses. This will go a long way in preparation for their big stage homecoming.

So as this well-rounded Moroccan national team and their leader Hervé Renard look forward to a summer in Russia, I’ll be keeping a close eye on their progress from afar. As I’m sure will our Ouzoud van driver, and Hassim, the elder Berber taxi driver.

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