“At the bottom of patience one finds heaven,” says the African proverb, one that holds true in the case of Moroccan attacking midfielder Younes Belhanda. Taking stock of the Atlas Lions’ shock group-phase exit at the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, the Montpellier man believes everything will come together for Morocco with time.
Attributing their untimely elimination to overconfidence, the 22-year-old international told FIFA.com of his recipe for Morocco’s future success: “We need to grow together. The coach has only been with us for a year and he’s already got his squad in place. People need to stop giving him a hard time and let him get on with his job.”
Time to mature
“We were a bit too sure of ourselves when we went to the Africa Cup of Nations,” he added. “Maybe we thought the good results we had in the warm-up games gave us the right just to stroll through to the final.
“But if you haven’t got the right attitude, it’s hard to do well in competitions like that. The Africa Cup of Nations is a different type of football to the one we see in Europe, but we just didn’t want to see that. We wanted to play a European game and that was a tactical and mental error, and it showed a lack of maturity on our part too.”
A sensation with Ligue 1 high-flyers Montpellier this season, Belhanda missed the 2-0 friendly win over Burkina Faso at the end of February, sitting the game out with Youssouf Hadji, Marouane Chamakh and Houssine Kharja while coach Eric Gerets blooded seven new boys.
Though there was nothing unusual about that, the Belgian’s much-changed line-up proved an indication that he had thought long and hard about their ill-fated campaign in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea a few weeks earlier.
“We need to be aware that we play a purely technical game,” commented Gerets in the newspaper Le Matin last month. “So what we’re going to do is try and bring in a little more physicality and finds players who are up to the job. We need to find a better blend of the technical and the physical.”
“Our identity comes from the unity in the team but we need to add a more physical side to our game,” concurred the much-coveted Belhanda, who made his international debut in a friendly against Northern Ireland last November. “We have to create the right atmosphere and strike a balance between our technical strengths and the need to put ourselves about more.”
No time for looking back
Having held on to his job and been handed the task of taking the Lions to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, Gerets also has the backing of his young playmaker.
“You can’t lay all the blame on the coach,” said Belhanda, who escaped blame for Morocco’s poor showing in the recent continental finals thanks to his fine individual performances in a relatively inexperienced side.
“I can understand the criticism but some very harsh things have been said. The coach is new to African football but he’s got the experience to learn from the setback, and he just needs to be allowed to work. The fans and the media are disappointed but so are we. We went there to win and it was a tough blow for us.
“We need to put this disappointment behind us,” he continued. “There’s no point in dwelling on it or having regrets, and you have to remember that most of the players have less than ten caps to their name.”
There is indeed little time for the Atlas Lions to lick their wounds, what with crunch games coming up against Gambia and Côte d’Ivoire in early June, marking the start of hostilities in Group C of the second round of the CAF qualifying competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
A slip-up in either of those matches will heap pressure onto Moroccan shoulders. Yet even if that does turn out to be the case, the cool-headed Belhanda believes the north Africans just need time to get things right, a patient approach he hopes will be rewarded with the ultimate prize: places at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and the biggest footballing show on Earth a year later.