“How stupid can you be to choose Morocco if you are in contention for the Dutch national team?”
Suffice to say, Marco van Basten’s words directed at Hakim Ziyech two years ago haven’t aged well.
The Netherlands of course did not qualify for Russia while Ajax’s Dutch-born star Ziyech has helped Morocco reach their first World Cup in two decades.
In Van Basten’s defence, there is understandable frustration given the vast swathes of promising young kids raised in the Netherlands who receive the best training Europe can offer only to opt for another country.
But often nations like Morocco are viewed as the final destination rather than a primary option, now, however, the narrative has shifted.
Under the guidance of Herve Renard, the underrated French boss who has won the African Cup of Nations with Zambia and Ivory Coast, the Atlas Lions have emerged as arguably the best African team at this tournament.
They topped a qualifying group featuring respected African outfits Gabon, Mali and heavily fancied Ivory Coast without conceding a single goal, and while the side is hallmarked by defensive steel, Morocco possess sharp attackers capable of cutting up any team.
Indeed, while they’ve been thrown in with the Group B sharks of Spain and Portugal, if neither predator is alert, they’ll see that Lions eat first.
Do not misinterpret the unbridled joy the team received when qualification was secured for a graciousness of simply booking their spot – Renard has nurtured a finely balanced side.
Captain Mehdi Benatia leads a parsimonious defence which includes Real Madrid’s talented and enterprising young full-back Achraf Hakimi.
In midfield, Al Jazira’s Mbark Boussoufa is a deeply impressive player, who whether deployed in a two as a defensive shield, on his own as a No10 or even out wide, is always a classy operator.
Renard has also been blessed with technically gifted stars like Younes Belhanda and Ziyech. Morocco have a past with the World Cup – they were the first African side to reach the knockout stages in 1986 while in 1998 were minutes away from reaching the last-16 again.
This crop is primed to write their own history.
He is arguably Ajax’s most talented star but his relationship with the Dutch side’s fans has soured this season. The wing wizard could be in the shop window and his dazzling dribbling is sure to catch the eye.
There’s been rumours he could jump ship and manage Algeria after the World Cup but the flamboyant Frenchman has shut the gossip down. He’s not the most talented tactician but his passionate persona guided Zambia and Ivory Coast to African titles so he has pedigree.
Morocco are built in the image of the Juventus centre-back. A physical colossus, the 31-year-old has showed signs of redemption after his Bayern blip, producing the type of form which saw him reviewed as Serie A’s best defender in 2013/14 with Roma.
It has been a baptism of fire for the 19-year-old Real Madrid full-back with Zinedine Zidane throwing him into the first-team fold for much of his first senior season with Los Blancos. He’s handled the pressure excellently and is one of the tournament’s most promising young stars.
STATS AND FACTS
– Morocco were the first African side to win a group at the World Cup, when they finished ahead of England, Poland and Portugal in 1986
– 20 years since Morocco last qualified for the World Cup
– Morocco are in a two-horse race with the joint bid of the United States, Canada and Mexico to host the 2026 World Cup. The vote is held on June 13.
77 DEF 77 MID 74 ATT
World Cups competed at
5 (First in 1970)
World Cup record
P13, W2, D4, L7
Round of 16 (1986)
P8, W4, D3, L1
Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia), Yassine Bounou (Girona), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger).
Defenders: Mehdi Benatia (Juventus), Romain Saiss (Wolves), Manuel Da Costa (Istanbul Basaksehir), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (Lille).
Midfielders: M’barek Boussoufa (Al Jazira), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray), Faycal Fajr (Getafe), Amine Harit (Schalke).
Forwards: Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor), Aziz Bouhaddouz (St Pauli), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (Leganes), Mehdi Carcela (Standard Liege), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax), Youssef En Nesyri (Malaga).
They have previous for topping a group featuring Portugal at the 1986 World Cup but a Ronaldo-led side and Spain should surely qualify in Russia.
It’s been a long 12-year wait for the Eagles of Carthage to finally qualify again for football’s showpiece event. From 1998 to 2006, with the 2002 World Cup sandwiched in the middle, the north-west African nation reached the finals for three times in succession.
This time around, progress beyond Group G, again, looks unlikely. Star man Youssef Msakni’s awful cruciate ligament injury, which he sustained in April playing for Al-Duhail in the Qatar Stars League, was a catastrophic blow to their overall chances.
His absence is indeed rotten luck and has increased the pressure on Sunderland man Wahbi Khazri, who has spent this past season on loan at Rennes, to step-up. The difference in quality between those two though is stark.
Indeed, prolificacy in front of goal will be a real problem. Sitting alongside Msakni on the injury treatment table is forward Yassine Khenissi. The ES de Tunis hitman, who was the leading goalscorer in last year’s CAF Champions League, will miss the World Cup after sustaining a thigh injury.
The news came as another knockout blow for Nabil Maaloul’s men, leaving Tunisia short of few striking alternatives.
The make-up of Tunisia’s group is intriguing but Belgium and England are certainly the overwhelming favourites to advance.
However, if Tunisia could get at least a point from one of those two games, it might mean they have hope ahead of their final group game against newcomers Panama at the Mordovia Arena in Saransk.
Impressively, Maaloul’s side topped their qualification group with ease, winning four matches and drawing two against sides including DR Congo, Libya and Guinea.
The 2004 African Cup of Nations champions, having missed the past two editions of the World Cup, will be raring to have another crack at England in their opener.
Tunisia lost 2-0 to Glenn Hoddle’s men at France ‘98 in their Group Stage clash and will be hoping to put some kind of record straight.
Blessed with great technical ability, the 25-year-old Lille star will need to be on top of his game. Having had a good season on loan from his parent club at Dijon, he should relish that extra responsibility in Msakni’s absence.
The former Hannover 96 and Al-Ahli club midfielder took over the coaching reins again in April 2017, having briefly worked with his nation – with whom he earned 74 caps including a return off 11 goals during his career – in the early 2000s to guide them to their first World Cup since 2006.
At 33, the Al Batin goalkeeper is by far the most senior and experienced player in the ranks when it comes to caps. Will need to work closely with coach Maaloul to get instructions across to an inexperienced side who need to be utterly disciplined at the back to stand a chance.
The 20-year-old Nice winger made his international bow back in March during the 1-0 win over Iran and has talent, but lacks experience along with many other members of the squad. Could be used as an impact substitute in Russia – expect his team-mates to look for him at every chance.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– On March 20, 1956, Tunisia gained independence from France and four years later became a member of FIFA 1956.
– Home advantage counted a lot for Tunisia back in 2004 when they triumphed as AFCON hosts Tunisia have only won one match at the World Cup, a 3-1 win over Mexico in 1978.
– They would also go on to draw with west Germany that year.
70 DEF 72 MID 72 ATT
World Cups competed at
5 (first tournament in 1978)
World Cup record
P16, W7, D2, L7
Group Stage (1998)
P8, W6, D2
Goalkeepers: A. Mathlouthi (Al Batin), M.Hassen (Chateauroux), F. Ben Mustapha (Al Shabab).
Defenders: N. Hamdi (Zamalek), D. Bronn (Gent), R. Bedoui (Etoile du Sahel), Y. Benalouane (Leicester), S. Ben Youssef (Kasimpasa), Y. Meriah (CS Sfaxien), O. Haddadi (Dijon), A. Maaloul (Al Ahly).
Midfielders: E. Skhiri (Montpellier), M. Amine Ben Amor (Al-Ahli), G. Chaalali (Esperance), F. Sassi (Al Nassr), A. Khalil (Club Africain), S. El Khaoui (Troyes).
Strikers: F. Ben Youssef (Al Ettifaq), A. Badri (Esperance), B. Srarfi (Nice), W. Khazri (Rennes), N. Sliti (Dijon), S. Khalifa (Club Africain).
Goals are set to be a big problem and only a handful of players in the squad ply their trade in Europe. third spot may be their best hope.
France centre-back Samuel Umtiti believes the Les Bleu squad have ’23 leaders’ and youngsters who will relish the responsibility of chasing their World Cup dream in Russia.
Didier Deschamps’ men face Australia, Peru and Denmark in Group C.
Watch Umtiti speak during his press conference below: