The last time Morocco qualified for the FIFA World Cup™ was in 1998 when two Norwegian goals in the last seven minutes against Brazil famously interrupted them in mid-celebration, their dreams of a place in the knockout stages denied. In their third finals in 12 years at that point, Moroccans are desperate for a return to the global stage. And, no player is more determined to reach Brazil 2014 than captain Houssine Kharja, who has been starring in his third qualifying campaign for the Atlas Lions.
After two matches in Brazil 2014 qualifying, which has seen Kharja score a goal in each as the Moroccans have come from behind for a pair of draws, it’s clear that the 29-year-old is doing everything he can to see his side challenge for top of Group C in Africa. "You know, I have had a respectable career as a player in Europe,” said the France-born player, who started his career at Paris Saint-Germain before settling into Italian football as he currently plays for Fiorentina. “But I have a big frustration on a personal level with the national team because I have never had the chance to play at the World Cup or to win the African Cup of Nations. I have strong ambitions with my national team. What I miss the most is that I have never achieved something great with Morocco."
Two vital goals
After the heartbreak of 1998, the Atlas Lions came agonisingly close to qualifying for the next two finals, losing out to 2002 breakouts Senegal only on a tie-breaker, and letting a lead slip against Tunisia in the final match when a win would have taken them to Germany 2006. In 2010, the Moroccans slumped to bottom of their group, racking up just three draws in six matches - and there are worries that this campaign is following a similar pattern. Currently sitting third in their group after draws at Gambia and at home to Côte d'Ivoire, things could be much worse if not for the pair of goals from midfielder Kharja.
In Bakau, he equalised for his side in the 76th minute, while in Marrakech against the Elephants, the visiting side took the lead twice with Kharja leveling matters from the spot shortly before the break. And though he has scored a number of important goals for his national team, he says that should be expected of him. "As the captain of the team, I have to lead by example. I try to be in the penalty area as much as possible and to bring some positive aggressiveness. We often lack players in the area because in our system of play we use only one striker. But I would rather not score and see Morocco win every game!"
Kharja said that in both qualifying matches, individual mistakes cost them dearly. "We must strengthen our defence in the future. We were compelled to run after the score." The skipper does, however, see some positives from the two games. "The good side is that we showed team spirit. We could have lost both games, but each time we struggled to get a draw. This proves that the national team never gives up and that players fight until the very end.”
Tracking the Elephants
Kharja is confident that the Atlas Lions can still qualify. “We are still in the race. The next game (in Tanzania) is in March of 2013, which will leave us enough time to ensure that some of the injured players who missed the game against Côte d'Ivoire are back." However, Kharja is aware that knocking off the west Africans is a big ask for any side. "They are number one in Africa and we know they are a very strong team. Our young players might be impressed by stars’ names before the game, but once it starts, we are just 11 players on both sides of the field. The draw against them keeps us alive, but we don’t have any joker left now. It's up to us to get all the points that are still to be played, and we hope we can go there and win our ticket to Brazil in Abidjan.”
The captain says the side has been doing well under coach Eric Gerets, who took over the side in 2010 and kept the job despite elimination in the first round of the Cup of Nations earlier this year. "I think he has done a good job. People have to be patient. In Morocco, every time we lose one or two games, people ask for a change of coach. In football, you need stability. I've always been against the changes, as they do not make things easier. I am in favor of keeping the coach because the coach is doing a good job and because we can still qualify for the World Cup.”