The Moroccan kings who ruled Africa
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While it is difficult to pinpoint precisely, football’s first appearance in Morocco dates back to 1913 and the formation of three clubs in particular, Union Sportive Marocaine, Stade Marocain and Sporting Club des Roches Noires. What better way for the North African nation to mark the centenary of the sport’s emergence than to stage the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013?

With the kick-off to the event’s curtain-raiser between local favourites Raja Casablanca and New Zealanders Auckland City FC fast approaching, FIFA.com takes a look back at three players – Mohamed Timoumi, Badou Zaki and Mustapha Hadji – who became national idols in Morocco, the birthplace of legendary French internationals such as Larbi Ben Barek and Just Fontaine.

All those who had the chance to watch Mohamed Timoumi play are likely to remember an elegant and gifted performer who was capable of combining impressive dribbling skills with perfect passes and unstoppable shots.

Born in Rabat in 1960, he was spotted in his late teens by Union de Touarga, where he established himself as an outstanding playmaker, to the extent that he was called up for his country at youth level and then for the senior Moroccan side, before he had even turned 20.

His attributes attracted the interest of numerous big-name teams, but it was FAR Rabat who won the race for his signature in 1984.

After joining the side from the capital, Timoumi grew in stature and inspired his team-mates to great success, lifting three consecutive national cups between 1984 and 1986 and the African Cup of Champions Clubs in 1985, the first time a Moroccan club had achieved such a feat in ten years.

The attacking midfielder also received individual recognition, scooping the African Footballer of the Year award the same year, in a first for Moroccan football since Ahmed Faras ten years earlier.

Tempting offers came his way from Europe, but FAR Rabat were understandably hesitant to let such a valuable asset depart.

“If he leaves Morocco, it should be to join a big club,” said Jose Faria, the Brazilian who coached Timouni at club and international level. “You can just imagine what kind of damage he could cause if he lined up alongside a player like Emilio Butragueno.”

Mexico success
Timouni became known to a much wider audience at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, where he propelled Morocco to the top of their group, as they secured two 0-0 draws with Poland and England, as well as an unforgettable 3-1 victory over Portugal.

Despite their creative fulcrum’s immense talent, the Atlas Lions – the first African or Arab team to advance past the group stage of the World Cup – were defeated by Germany in the Round of 16, Lothar Matthaus’ late free-kick doing the damage and ending their hopes.

Decades after that memorable adventure, Timoumi continues to focus on the development of the Moroccan game. “I still haven’t given up on the idea of converting from a player to a coach,” he said in 2006. “What I’d most love to do is give youngsters the benefit of my experience.”

Morocco were captained by goalkeeper Badou Zaki at Mexico 1986. Instrumental in the two scoreless stalemates recorded during the group phase, he kept at bay the attempts of England’s Gary Lineker, Bryan Robson and Chris Waddle, as well as Poland’s Zbigniew Boniek.

Agility and reflexes were just two facets of his game that saw him recognised as the best African shot-stopper of his era. While African Footballer of the Year was an accolade generally bestowed upon more attack-minded players, the 1986 award went to Zaki, the second year in a row that a Moroccan had finished top of the voting.

Zaki would go on to confirm his newfound status by subsequently signing for Mallorca. In three seasons with Los Bermellones, he was handed the captain’s armband and awarded the (Spanish second division's) Zamora Trophy, earned by the goalkeeper with the lowest goals-to-games ratio each year.

The African custodian had come a long way from his humble beginnings at AS Sale in 1976, where his good form landed him a move to Wydad Casablanca, with whom he clinched two Moroccan League titles (in 1979 and 1986) and two Moroccan Cups (in 1979 and 1981).

Returning to his homeland in 1992, he brought the curtain down on his playing career at FUS Rabat prior to turning his hand to coaching.

“Each has its plus points,” the former custodian told FIFA.com recently. “I enjoyed myself enormously as a young player, but the older and more experienced you get, the more you enjoy coaching, being part of a group, dealing with pressure, and taking on challenges. Even though my job sometimes keeps me up at night, I’m still happy.”

Dazzling debut
Happiness at reaching the World Cup was an emotion that Morocco’s fans and players did not feel again until 1994. During the final matchday of the African qualifying campaign, the Atlas Lions trailed Zambia by a point, and needed to beat their Group B rivals to book a ticket to the USA.

They accomplished just that via a goal from Abdeslam Laghrissi, but the match was also notable for the international debut of Mustapha Hadji, who became an instant fans’ favourite by putting in a sparkling performance in Casablanca.

At the final whistle, the name of the young attacking midfielder, who had turned down a call-up to France’s U-21 team in favour of the land of his birth, was joyously chanted by the entire stadium.

“It’s the greatest memory of my career,” he said. “I fulfilled a dream I’d had since I was a child. I’ve experienced some unforgettable moments playing for Morocco, but 10 October 1993 will forever be imprinted on my mind. That was the day I was adopted by an exceptional country and its people.”

Then at French outfit Nancy, Hadji would go on to star for Sporting Lisbon, Deportivo La Coruna, Aston Villa and Espanyol, each time leaving an extremely positive impression courtesy of his exemplary behaviour and exceptional skills.

Those same qualities saw him develop into one of the first names on the teamsheet for the Moroccan national side, with which he enjoyed two of his finest moments in 1998.

The first came at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Burkina Faso, when the unpredictable midfield man scored a remarkable last-minute overhead kick to beat Egypt in the group stage. The second occurred later that year, when he notched another marvellous goal against Norway at the World Cup in France.

That strike and his fine all-round displays played a large part in Hadji following in the footsteps of Timoumi and Zaki by being named African Footballer of the Year for 1998 – the last Moroccan winner of the award to date.