40 years ago to the day, Morocco celebrated their maiden triumph in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, emerging victorious to write their own piece of history. That 1976 victory remains their sole success in the competition, and FIFA.com decided to honour the anniversary by speaking with Morocco's captain at the time, Ahmed Faras.
For Morocco supporters old enough to remember, the team's victory in Ethiopia was experienced via radio, with the entire population glued to their sets as the national side delivered their greatest ever performance. In the absence of television or the internet, Moroccans relied on the voice of Ahmed El Gharbi to conjure up the tournament atmosphere, and the now deceased commentator ensured his own fame by describing Morocco's eventual win with irrepressible joy.
The breakthrough moment itself came when Morocco secured a 1-1 draw with Guinea in Addis Ababa on 14 March 1976, sealing their first and, so far, only Africa Cup of Nations title. It is a game Faras remembers well, the midfielder and captain having been a key presence for his side as they closed in on the trophy. "It wasn't easy to win that title," he said, speaking from his home in Agadir. "Guinea needed to win, whereas we only needed to draw. The Guineans were seen as the Brazilians of Africa at the time. They troubled us every minute of the game and, when they went ahead, things got difficult.
"We were overwhelmed, but we woke up in the second half and gave it everything. Then, in the 86th minute, I carried the ball forward from midfield and heard someone call for it. I passed very quickly to Ahmed Makrouh, and he scored the equaliser with a shot from 25 metres out. Four minutes later, the Zambian referee whistled for the end of the game and the title was ours."
Despite the final outcome, Faras endured some testing moments before the competition had even begun. A few days ahead of Morocco's opening game against Sudan, he was laid low with typhoid, an illness that nearly spelled disaster for the whole team. "Just before the first match, I started to feel shivers and had a migraine, all the symptoms of typhoid. The doctor banned me from training and asked me to stay in my room and take my medicine. My dream of lifting the trophy was suddenly gone and it looked like I wouldn't be able to take part in the tournament.
"The morning of the game, the President of the Moroccan delegation, Mehdi Belmajdoub, came to see me and he said: 'Pull yourself together. You're going to lead your team-mates against Sudan and none of them will realise that you're ill.' And that's what happened, I played the game and we put in a great performance against a superb Sudan side."
True enough, Morocco could barely afford to lose his services. Renowned for his excellent technique, Faras was feared across Africa – which is why he went on to contest every game despite his illness, with the Atlas Lions progressing from the first round thanks to their opening draw with Sudan and wins against Zaire (Congo DR) and Nigeria. Through to the final round, they then saw off Egypt and Nigeria before their meeting with Guinea.
With financial rewards comparatively meagre at the time, what mattered most to the players was the idea of seeing their flag raised high and securing a historic first title for their nation. "We're a unique generation," says Faras. "We sacrificed everything for the national team shirt and the glory of Moroccan football. I remember how, before the tournament started, we received $50 as an incentive bonus. Three months after we won the title, we were given $1,000."
Faras was a glittering talent on the African football scene during the 1970s. Despite his young age, he steered his side to a trio of Africa Cup of Nations final tournaments, and helped them qualify for the 1972 Munich Olympics, where he scored three goals, having also appeared at the 1970 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. His individual qualities did not go unnoticed either, and he was named African Footballer of the Year in 1975, becoming the first Arab player to win that prestigious award.
"In 1975, I won the Moroccan championship and the Coupe du Trone and finished runner-up in the Maghreb Cup Winners' Cup with Chabab Mohammedia," he explained, recalling the exploits that led France Football magazine to single him out for recognition. "I then led my country to victory in the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations, which made that an exceptional year for me."
Still Morocco's all-time leading scorer thanks to his 42 goals, Faras is now hoping that a new generation of players can pick up the baton and end the country's long wait for a second continental crown – in circumstances far more favourable than he and his team-mates had to contend with 40 years ago.