Morocco are desperate to put on a good showing at the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016, in part to make amends for four years ago, when they suffered three defeats as tournament debutants. Indeed, their experience in Thailand proved to be something of a baptism of fire. Futsal is a game of small details and the Moroccan machine, lacking mileage at the highest level, was simply unable to cover all the bases.
The Atlas Lions earned themselves a second opportunity to shine on the global stage, but they always knew that it would be difficult and that markers of progress might be hard to come by, at least where the numbers are concerned. The reason: a draw that dealt the north Africans a cruel hand, pitting them up against ambitious Azerbaijan, a Spain side with glittering credentials and 11-time Asian champions Iran.
Their opener against the Azeris had been earmarked as their least complicated fixture. As it turned out, the Moroccans came away smarting from a 5-0 defeat and, with two theoretically tougher tests on the cards, their hopes of progressing to the next round would already seem to be hanging from a thread.
Nevertheless, coach Hicham Dguig was adamant that he was pleased with his charges' attitude against Azerbaijan, the result notwithstanding, and this sentiment was echoed by his captain, Adil Habil: "We are going to do our job by analysing the mistakes we made and the areas in which we can improve. However, we will have to forget all about that match and start afresh with a clean slate," said the skipper, who was eager to talk up his side's chances of advancing as one of the best third-placed teams.
Morocco's biggest challenge now may not in fact lie in the identity of their remaining opponents (they face Iran on 15 September and Spain three days later), but rather in their own minds. They will have to shake off their early setback and keep the faith. As the 6'2 (1.89m) forward put it, "It is our responsibility to believe we can do it. That's what being professional means. We want to hold our own against the very best and a professional mentality is paramount to do that."
Reasons to believe
"We're aware of our limits but we have improved, even if things didn't go our way in the first match," said Habil, before reinforcing his point as if to emphasise that this fighting talk was not just hot air. "When we're focused and steer clear of errors, we always give a good account of ourselves. We've proven that amply in the past," the Raja Casablanca Futsal star went on.
Morocco were beaten by both Iran and Spain in the group stage in Thailand, falling 2-1 to the former and succumbing to a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of the latter. Yet Habil is convinced that his team are better equipped now, particularly in terms of strength in depth. "How can we not believe? We've always lost in the past when standing up to such opponents despite not having players of the same quality on the bench. Nowadays we can rotate heavily during games and that changes everything," said the man whose displays were instrumental in his country's run to glory at the 2016 CAF Africa Futsal Cup of Nations, where he scored the winner in the 3-2 final victory over Egypt.
Their continental triumph is another reason for the Moroccans not to throw in the towel. On the one hand, it provides them with additional motivation to live up to their status, while on the other, it offers them continued confidence that they can deliver when the pressure is on. "Being African champions means a massive amount to us. We've come here looking to do that title justice," said the 33-year-old. "Above all, we don't want to be seen as the tournament's whipping boys," concluded the Atlas Lions talisman, calmly but firmly, ahead of taking on two teams that have dished out a fair few drubbings.