Morocco’s long-suffering fans have been waiting since the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™ to see their beloved national team compete on football’s greatest stage.
In 1998, the majority of players involved in the current national set-up were young children busy kicking a ball around in streets and fields the length and breadth of Morocco, as described by Younes Belhanda in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
“I was eight years old at the time, and I can still remember that tournament as if it were yesterday,” said the attacking midfielder. “We rushed to get out of school to catch Morocco’s games – the team was packed with stars back then. Following their progress was amazing.
"The 1998 team played a key role in my decision to represent Morocco. I remember their dynamic style and the love the players had for the jersey. I remember their matches against Norway and Scotland, where they showed how good they were. They deserved to qualify for the last 16.”
Since enjoying that adventure, however, the Atlas Lions have missed out on four World Cups, a surprising statistic when the number of top-quality Moroccan players performing in major European leagues is taken into account.
“None of the generations that have emerged after France 1998 has been successful,” said Belhanda. “We shouldn’t forget, though, that the football map in Africa has changed somewhat, and that there really are no minnows out there any more. All African national teams have at least one excellent player, the kind who are constantly catching the eyes of European scouts.”
Another factor, according to the versatile midfielder, has been the revolving door of men in charge. “Constantly changing coaches has definitely had a negative impact, because it’s caused a lack of cohesion. It’s difficult to quickly build a team capable of competing with the best Africa has to offer. In the modern game, you need stability, and with that the results will come in time,” he explained.
The Dynamo Kiev star and his team-mates in the national side are desperate to put those troubled times behind them and finally give their fans something to cheer about by returning to the World Cup stage. To achieve that dream, they will be keen to avoid the heartbreak of winner-takes-all qualifying clashes such as the ones they lost to Senegal in 2002 and to Tunisia in 2006, memories of which still cause Moroccan fans to grimace.
“We have a duty to our country and to ourselves. The people know that we want to qualify just as much as they do. There’s a good feeling in the camp right now, and we must do everything we can to bring this run of bad luck to an end. The greatest gift we could give to our supporters would be a spot at Russia 2018,” said Belhanda, who was too young to take part in the unsuccessful qualifiers for Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006.
The 25-year-old is currently competing in his second qualifying campaign in a row, hopeful that his experience of playing in a variety of positions – he was converted from a defence-minded player to an attacking midfielder by his coach at Montpellier, Rene Girard, in 2010 – can help the North Africans to qualify for the World Cup for the fifth time.
To attain that goal, Belhanda and Co. will have to eliminate Equatorial Guinea in the imminent second round of African qualifying for Russia 2018, the home and away legs of which will take place on 12 and 15 November respectively.
“Equatorial Guinea are a good side; they were excellent at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year,” he said. “We need to take them seriously and not underestimate or overestimate them. They have talented players like Javier Balboa, but I’m confident in our ability to beat them. Equatorial Guinea is just the first step of a long road.”
Belhanda and his team-mates very much hope to be present and correct at the end of that road, to finally regain a taste of the World Cup and bring a long run of frustration and failure to an end.