Morocco coach Eric Gerets believes that his side lost their opening CAF Africa Cup of Nations match against north African rivals Tunisia in Libreville on Monday because they wanted to win it too much. "When you play with your heart, you must not forget to use your head. I think that for some time my players' heart was bigger than their brain. They wanted to do well at all costs," the Belgian said.
He admitted that the defeat put considerable pressure on his side for their remaining two matches against co-hosts Gabon and Niger. The Panthers beat debutantes Niger 2-0 in their opener in the earlier match on Monday, and Gerets said that made their job even more difficult. "If you lose the first game and then the next you will be out. However, we are 23 players plus the staff and we will help each other not to feel the pressure."
The former Belgian international said that Morocco’s nerves reveal a positive side as well. "We came here with the motivation to win it. That does not mean we will win it, but at least you should have the motivation when you start a campaign like this one," he explained.
Pressure though, is something that Gerets, who was capped 86 times for Belgium is well used to. He is a veteran of the 1982, 1986 and 1990 FIFA World Cups™, played at the 1980 European Championships, won the European Cup with PSV Eindhoven in 1988 and moved into coaching when he hung up his boots in 1992. He started his managerial career in the same year, taking over RFC de Liege. Since then he has coached in many different countries, with some big-name clubs like Galatasaray and Marseille. He has won four different national leagues: Belgium (Lierse SK and Club Brugge), Netherlands (PSV Eindhoven), Turkey (Galatasaray) and Saudi Arabia (Al-Hilal).
Lions desperate for success
The former defender was on a two-year contract with Al-Hilal before being lured away to coach the Atlas Lions, which he at first did only part time as he stayed with the Saudi club for the AFC Champions League. But once the club had been knocked out at the semi-final stage, there was nothing holding Gerets back from taking over his first national team. "It is a wonderful experience being here at the Africa Cup of Nations. I am very impressed," Gerets said.
He complimented the organisers for the way the tournament was being run. "The facilities are amazing. I know it is more difficult in Africa than in Europe, but people are really trying to give the best they have. Up to now, there has been nothing to complain about."
Moroccan fans have long been yearning for footballing success. In 2004, they made it to the final of the Nations Cup, but lost to Tunisia and since then their faithful fans have had to endure a period of very limited success. In 2006 and 2008, they failed to progress beyond the group stages of the Nations Cup and in 2010 they even failed to qualify. They were also not present at the finals of the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups in Germany and South Africa.
That has placed an extra burden on Gerets, as he attempts to deliver something to the success-starved fans. "That is the motivation of my players and that is the motivation of all Moroccan people. They have the desire to have a happy end and at the end of the road to have first place,” he said.
Without doubt, Gerets has a squad capable of challenging for the title. Upfront Arsenal striker Marouane Chamakh is always good for a goal, while Fiorentina midfielder Houssine Kharja captains the side. Chamakh warned his team-mates that they should take no opponent for granted. "Even Niger will be strong. We have to take them very seriously, as they beat Egypt to make it to the finals.” Kharja added that he was not giving much thought to the possibility that he was playing in his last major tournament. "At the moment, I am just here to win with my national team."
Mehdi Benatia, who has played an important part in Serie A side Udinese's phenomenal season that has seen them challenge the traditional powerhouses of Italian football, is a stalwart in defence. "We have the players that can challenge, and I am sure we will do much better in our next game against Gabon," Gerets said. "We will have to be at our best against the hosts, but there is no reason why we can't win."