“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.
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