Moroccan minnows making a splash

Two trophies in the space of a week towards the end of last year catapulted FUS Rabat into the spotlight and next weekend brings an opportunity for this modest club from Morocco’s capital to further enhance in the CAF Super Cup against African champions and FIFA Club World Cup Cup sensations TP Mazembe.

Fath Union Sport de Rabat’s success in December’s CAF Confederation Cup proved one of the bigger upsets in continental club competition over the last decade, as the unheralded side snatched a glorious away triumph over the much-fancied CS Sfaxien of Tunisia to win a first ever pan-African title. That came just days after the club, who have spent much of their time yo-yoing between the top two divisions in Morocco, won rare domestic honours by taking the Thorne Cup with a 2-1 triumph over Maghreb Fes.

It has been a heady ride for the capital city club, overshadowed for years by the successful exploits of their neighbours, FAR Rabat. Indeed it was the military men who beat FUS in the 2009 Throne Cup final, albeit after coming from behind to equalise late to force a 1-1 tie, taking the game to extra time and then winning 5-4 on penalties. But with FAR not participating, FUS were able to take up the place reserved for the cup winner in the 2010 Confederation Cup and set off on a remarkable run all the way to the title.

The unlikeliest of champions
FUS, first formed in 1946, had only won promotion back up to Morocco’s Botola in mid-2009, but remarkably, within 18 months, they were holding aloft a continental trophy. The win against Sfaxien came contrary to all predictions since the Tunisians had won the event two of the previous three seasons. But after a long and often nail-biting run through both the early knockout rounds and the group stages of the Confederation Cup, including eliminating holders Stade Malien of Mali, FUS proved that their form throughout had given them the necessary confidence too win when few thought it was possible.

Coach Hocine Ammouta’s team were held goalless at home in the first leg of the final, giving them little chance in theory for the return at Sfax’s Stade Taieb M’hiri against a slick Tunisian side coached by former Cameroon and Qatar boss Pierre Lechantre. To make matters worse, FUS had been beaten 3-0 previously in the southern Tunisian city by Sfaxien in the group stages at the end of August.

Down 2-1 with a quarter-hour left in the second leg of the final, those predictions were holding firm until Mohamed Zouidi came on to inspire a remarkable comeback. Involved in the equaliser that Rachid Rokki scored from captain Ben Cherifa’s free-kick, Zouidi then grabbed a spectacular winner for himself two minutes from the end after he tore off on a breakaway and chipped the on-rushing goalkeeper to make sure of the trophy. It was a stunning end to a dramatic campaign that had seen the Moroccans advance past two previous rounds only by virtue of away goals and two more by a single-goal margin.

Another Goliath awaits
The two-legged victory was a triumph for modesty and industry for a team of hard-working players who were rewarded for enterprise and a steely determination in the face of long-shot odds. “It is a team always ready to respond to a challenge,” said Ammouta, who at 41 is a former Olympic international fast making his name in the coaching ranks.

FUS's side is anchored around the experience of Rokki, the 36-year-old who played at Sevilla in Spain and was in Morocco’s squad at the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ finals in France. The diminutive striker has provided much of the recent inspiration for a club whose historic roots are firmly entrenched in Morocco’s colonial struggle and who still have widespread support across the country even if they are not among the perennial title contenders.

Now FUS have their target on the Super Cup, but they must come up with some more magic away, this time against TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Lubumbashi on 29 January. Mazembe are not only two-time defending African champions, but holders of the Super Cup and coming off of a best-ever performance by an African team at the FIFA Club World Cup, where they reached the final. Up against more of the continental elite, it will be another game where the Moroccans will be underdogs, but few will be able to write them off now.