"We've finally found the team we've been looking for for the last ten years. It's the perfect time to return to the World Cup finals. It's been too long."
In uttering those words, Abdessalam Benjelloun summed up the sense of belief in the Morocco camp as they prepare for the final phase of Africa Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
The forward has every reason to be confident about their chances. Coach Roger Lemerre has conjured up a competitive blend, and having put their disappointing showing at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Ghana 2008 behind them, the Atlas Lions are embracing the future with optimism.
"It was a terrible tournament for us but we beat Belgium 4-1 away just afterwards and that was the best possible reaction," said Benjelloun, who now plays his club football for Belgian side Roulers after a spell with Charleroi. "The then-coach brought in a lot of young players and that gave us fresh impetus. We've managed to keep it going and the fans have forgotten about the CAN, and so have we."
The Moroccans reached the final phase after seeing off Rwanda and Mauritania in Round 2, their only setback being a 3-1 defeat in Kigali. As Benjelloun explained, the lessons of that loss were quickly learned. "We spoke about the defeat, analysed it closely and we beat them 2-0 at home a week later. Then Lemerre took over and we gained an easy win over Mauritania."
Morocco have played four friendlies since then, securing goalless draws with Oman and Czech Republic, as well as promising 3-1 and 3-0 wins over Benin and Zambia respectively. "The coach tried out a lot of youngsters in those two victories," said Benjelloun, the spearhead of Lemerre's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
"We will have a more settled line-up for the qualification matches because he knows the team he wants to play. Even so, we saw the new face of the national side against the Czechs. It's a team with a lot of heart."
After sacking Henri Michel, the Moroccan FA handed the UEFA EURO 2000-winning coach the task of building a side capable of reaching the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time since France 1998. And as far as Benjelloun is concerned, the former Bleus supremo is doing a fine job.
"Like Henri Michel he has a lot of experience and he's a great coach who has already proved himself. I'm sure he will help us a lot. He's coached players like Zidane in the past so with us it's going to be easy.
"He's always talking to the players. There's been a change in the mental approach. Even if we only have three days together to prepare for a match, he tries to be close to us. It's a different style altogether and that's what we needed. He's taken care of us and given us the will to win, and he's also mixed younger players in with the older ones. He's an intelligent coach and he's created a chemistry here."
All Morocco need to do now is reward Lemerre's careful team-building with results out on the pitch. The first opportunity to do that comes against Gabon in Casablanca on 28 March. "It's a good game to begin with," said Benjelloun.
"It can give us a good start, and we'll certainly need that because we've then got Cameroon and Togo to play in June. That's never an easy time because players are always tired at the end of the season. Cameroon are sure to be very motivated too after missing out on the finals in 2006."
If Benjelloun and Co can keep the 'Lemerre effect' going, they might just force the Cameroonians to wait another four years.