In the end, it was a step too far for Raja Casablanca. Beating a dominant FC Bayern Munchen side that rarely loses possession, let alone actual matches, proved an arduous challenge for a team that had qualified for this year’s FIFA Club World Cup by winning the Moroccan championship rather than a continental crown.
Reaching the final of the illustrious event will nevertheless be regarded as a victory of sorts. Defeated 2-0 by Bayern, who put in a solid, satisfactory performance, the Raja players were magnanimous but proud after the encounter, admitting they had lost to a better team but honoured to have written a new chapter in Morocco’s footballing history. And in a country somewhat lacking in inspiring sporting tales, they also managed to put a smile back on supporters’ faces.
“Judging by the scenes of joy that our run to the final caused, we realised that we’ve brought a bit of happiness to people’s lives,” explained striker Mouhssine Iajour – who finished third in the voting for the adidas Golden Ball – to FIFA.com. “After recent results in major tournaments, they needed a magical moment like this one."
Indeed, after Morocco’s four consecutive failures to qualify for the FIFA World Cup™ and five successive disappointments at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations (four first-round exits and one non-appearance), the nation’s football fans have had a rough ride of late.
“Everyone decided to give their full backing to the team because we flew the Moroccan flag with dignity and made all of our supporters very proud,” said midfielder Chemseddine Chtibi. “Let’s hope that this is not just the end of an adventure, but the start of a new one.”
Encouraged by a raucous crowd of nearly 40,000 supporters, Faouzi Benzarti’s charges realised they were up against it as early as the seventh minute, when Dante gave their European opponents the lead, but at the final whistle there was a distinct lack of tears, as the Raja players smiled and embraced each other in celebration of their historic achievement.
“We were huge underdogs, but we never let our heads go down at any point,” said Congolese international Deo Kanda, who had taken part in the previous victories over Auckland City FC and CF Monterrey, but was an unused substitute versus the Germans, a role which gave him a useful vantage point to appreciate the outstanding support in the stands. “When I see how much we’ve moved people, it almost makes me feel Moroccan."
Of course, nobody is ever truly happy to lose. Despite his disappointment, Benzarti, who was only appointed a few days before the start of the tournament, was still able to rationally analyse his team’s performance, taking into account the quality of the opposition.
“A 2-0 loss against Bayern is an honourable scoreline, although we would obviously have preferred to lift the cup,” said the Tunisian coach. “Raja’s results have made a real impression on the African and Arab football communities.
"But we’ll need to keep our feet on the ground. This extraordinary tournament is coming back to Morocco next year, and so we’ll have to make sure we’re champions to take part again.”
However, the Casablanca outfit currently lie in ninth place in the Moroccan Botola, eight points behind leaders Moghreb Tetouan. Due to their participation in the Club World Cup, they have two matches in hand, but they are also paying the price of a stuttering start that saw them go four matches without a win - a slump that cost former coach Mohamed Fakhir his job.
“We’ll need to build on the mental strength the players showed during this tournament, so that they can use it to their advantage in the domestic league,” said Benzarti.
That message has already got through to the Raja players, including Chtibi, who has begun to dream of a return to the global stage. “When you get a taste of this kind of success, all you want to do is to experience it all over again,” stated the Moroccan midfielder, who scored the first goal of his side’s earlier 2-1 win over Monterrey.
“And after watching our matches, all of the other Moroccan clubs will be keen to follow in our footsteps. That’s going to make the title race even more intriguing, but obviously I hope that when it’s all done and dusted, the name of the winning club remains the same.”