The moment was a long time coming for Morocco. On 24 April 2016, the national team finally ended Egypt’s 20-year reign at the summit of African futsal with a maiden victory over their arch-rivals in an official competition. Moreover, the Atlas Lions could not have picked a better moment to do it, with their 3-2 win coming in the final of the CAF Africa Futsal Cup of Nations to secure their place at the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016 in September as continental champions.
“I felt we were the strongest side and the best prepared – we were simply better than them,” Morocco’s coach Hicham Dguig told FIFA.com. “That’s the most satisfying thing about our triumph: that it was logical consequence of things," he added, as if in evidence. Indeed, such was the coach’s confidence before the tournament that he promised he would step down if he did not lead his charges to the World Cup. “I know African football and I know the quality of my players. So I was very much aware of our potential,” he explained.
Dguig’s offer amounted to a calculated risk, with the architect of Morocco’s success leaving nothing to chance. His measured words and reasoned actions are carefully analysed and almost second nature to him now. And so, game by game, he set about convincing his players that he was right. “I realised my squad had complete confidence in me. A few were a bit sceptical about my decisions at first, but later they came to see that they were right to trust me. Along the way there were several moments when things became clear to them, and that win over the defending African champions was the culmination of everything,” he added.
Dguig, a FIFA instructor and natural coach, likes to understand the game and carefully analyse it from different angles and perspectives. Futsal may not be an exact science, but assimilating its fundamental tactics can make all the difference, according to the 44-year-old Moroccan: “Futsal is made up of multiple combinations of four in terms of geometry, so it’s important you base your reasoning on vectors and matrices. I try to pass on that collective vision to my players. The ideal thing would be they're all thinking along the same lines and at the same time. I stress to them the importance of collective intelligence, as futsal is becoming more and more tactical. All my players have well developed intelligence of their own, but that in itself is not enough at this level of the game.”
The tone has clearly been set and Dguig is not one for tall tales. He sees no sense in harbouring ambitions that are not realistic. “I cannot ask the impossible of my players. I know futsal too well and I’m also sufficiently aware of the level of the game in Africa to get too carried away,” he said in reference to the upcoming World Cup.
“We’re champions of a futsal [region] still in development. Morocco has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years but I proposed an initial four-year project to continue that growth with a view to arriving at the following World Cup with even greater ambitions,” said the savvy, meditative coach. “We’ve benefited from the support and willingness of the Moroccan federation to reach the summit of African futsal, but this just the beginning.”
A ‘final’ to start with
Next up, of course, is the matter of Colombia 2016, where the North Africans have been drawn in a formidable looking group alongside Spain, Iran and Azerbaijan. In what will be only their second appearance at the Futsal World Cup – at Thailand 2012 they exited in the first round with three defeats in three games – the Atlas Lions will go toe to toe with the reigning European champions, their Asian counterparts and one of the emerging powers in European futsal. “We could scarcely have imagined a worse group,” Dguig lamented.
Rational as ever, the coach remained level-headed in assessing the situation. “The other sides are simply stronger than we are. In terms of the gap between us, Azerbaijan are the closest and represent our one chance of finishing third in the group,” he said, before considering a possible route to the knockout phase. “We can dream of reaching the Round of 16 only if we beat Azerbaijan, who we face in our opening game. We’ll be focusing our preparations on what will be a critical game for both teams. That will be our own ‘final’, so to speak.”
That said, Dguig’s underlying optimism about the future remains as strong as ever. Above all, it is about his charges being patient and applying themselves, as he told us at the end of our interview: “We already have very good foundations, and I’m convinced we can aspire to much greater things in the future. Before that, however, we need to continue with the professionalisation of our futsal and strive to improve with everything we’ve got.”
For now, though, the Atlas Lions have a ticket to this year’s World Cup to help speed up that development. They also have an accomplished instructor in Dguig and would be hard pressed to find a better learning environment than under him.