If Roman Saiss and his Atlas Lions captured the hearts of the footballing world by becoming the first African and Arab country to qualify for the semifinal of a FIFA World Cup – what it meant for Moroccans was inexpressible.
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“It seemed like every few days, something beautiful happened and then as you were revelling in its joy, the team would win another match,” Tom Yousef Drissi, a die-hard supporter of the national football team, told Al Jazeera.
“One achievement was eclipsed by another – it was a complete dream.”
It has been a little over a year since Morocco’s fairytale run in Qatar ended in a fourth-place finish after beating the likes of European powerhouses Portugal, Spain and Belgium in the run-up.
While the world admired the Atlas Lions for their compact and tactically sound football – refusing to concede ground to their much higher-ranked opponents – what Moroccan supporters valued even more was the manner in which their team carried themselves off the pitch.
The family atmosphere at the team hotel, singing and dancing parents on the pitch, unapologetic display of their faith and relentless support for the people of Palestine endeared the men in red and green to their fans.
Their coach Walid Regragui even went as far as to say that Morocco’s, “success is not possible without our parents’ happiness”.
With the world’s eyes on the North African nation, they put “their best foot forward in an unapologetically Moroccan way”, according to Drissi.
“To see the mothers in djellaba and hijab and the players doing sajda after the game was great. It’s one thing to have success but to have success with a team that you feel represents you was amazing.”
Last summer, Drissi was having lunch with his father at a restaurant in Rabat when they spotted Regragui quietly seated a few metres away.
“My dad walked over to him, kissed him on his bald head and said, ‘You lifted our heads’,” he recalled.
“For months after the World Cup, every Moroccan was walking around feeling like they were two feet taller,” Drissi explained.
The national team won over more hearts last September after a deadly earthquake struck Morocco’s Marrakesh-Safi region. Almost immediately after the natural catastrophe, the Atlas Lions were pictured donating blood for the victims.
A revolution in the making
While football experts may not have predicted Morocco’s record-breaking run at the World Cup, to say their success materialised overnight would be inaccurate.
Karim Bencherifa, an experienced Moroccan coach, believes the national team’s success is not unexpected.
Bencherifa, who coached Morocco’s women’s team and under-23 men’s team, saw a “football revolution” unfold from 2017 to 2019.
“Building top quality football infrastructure, scouting players in Morocco and abroad, picking young talent from age-group teams and having representation at international sport bodies was all part of the plan,” he said.
Morocco now boasts the continent’s best national technical centre at the Mohamed VI Complex near Rabat. The centre’s scouts have helped recruit top Moroccan footballers playing abroad.
The North African nation is set to host the 2025 Africa Cup of Nations and the 2030 FIFA World Cup.
In addition to impressing at the World Cup, Morocco impressed in its first appearance at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, won two African Nations Championships, two Futsal Africa Cup of Nations and an under-23 African Cup of Nations.
‘A mythical tournament’
But despite a long list of accolades, one title continues to evade Morocco: the men’s senior Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
The last time the Atlas Lions won the continental title was nearly five decades ago, in 1976,
Will a strong desire to finally secure Africa’s premier trophy and the weight of expectations burden the stars?
Morocco’s top-four finish in Qatar makes them obvious favourites for the title but experts believe stiff challenges await the team in the Ivory Coast.
“Every team would want to beat the World Cup semifinalists,” Bencherifa said.
Morocco’s tactics are also in question, with analysts saying Regragui may need to alter the team’s structure and playing philosophy.
At the World Cup, Morocco excelled by thriving without possession of the ball. They were a reactive outfit, closing passing lanes on the pitch and counter-attacking with precision and efficiency.
However, pundits expect Morocco to have the lion’s share of ball possession at AFCON.
It might spell trouble for their star players Achraf Hakimi, Sofyan Amrabat, Hakim Ziyech, Youssef En-Nesyri and Amine Harit as they may not enjoy the same success when the onus is on them to break down the opposition in a reversal of roles.
Bencherifa, while concerned, believes Morocco’s determination to win AFCON may overtake the temptation to play attractive football
“Although they [should] aim to do both,” he adds.
What about the weight of expectations and their psychological impact?
Drissi, the Rabat-based fan, admits that the team will be under pressure and it makes him nervous.
“We have only been to a semifinal [at AFCON] once in the last 20 years,” he admits with disappointment.
“The AFCON is almost like a mythical tournament for Moroccans. It would really lift a weight off our shoulders if we could bring the trophy home.”