Although Morocco were not the first African country to qualify for the FIFA World Cup™ – North African rivals Egypt have that honour – the Atlas Lions are this summer celebrating their own place in the record books. It was 30 years ago today that the Moroccans beat Portugal 3-1 to become the first African side to advance to the knockout stage of the Mundial. FIFA.com looks back at one of the most memorable stories from Mexico 1986.
Catching the world's attention When the Atlas Lions arrived in Mexico they did so with a formidable squad. Two years earlier they had participated at the Olympic Football Tournament in Los Angeles, where they were in a group that included West Germany and Brazil. “Being at the Olympics, we had the ambition to qualify for the World Cup finals,” Mustafa El Haddaoui, a veteran of the 1986 and 1994 World Cup finals recalled, taking FIFA.com back to those memorable days. “And we had a new generation of players, like Badou Zaki, Aziz Bouderbala, Mohammed Timoumi, Abderrazak Khairi, Krimau and myself.”
This golden generation of Moroccans qualified for the finals through Sierra Leone, Malawi and regional rivals Egypt and Libya, and they were drawn into a very tough group with Poland, Portugal and England. To prepare for their time in the spotlight – their second World Cup appearance, which was also in Mexico in 1970 – they spent a full 40 days training in Monterrey, where they were to play their first group game against Poland. “We had a very experienced coach in Brazilian Jose Faria, and he wanted us to get acclimated. We played a lot of friendlies against clubs and got very familiar with our first round opponents. We were at an advantage, as we knew their players, while they did not know us very well. In those times, it was quite difficult to get information about other teams.”
The midfielder played a big part in the opener, which saw the Moroccans prove themselves tough nuts to crack, and they eventually topped the group in one of the World Cup's shock achievements. “We had the impression that our opponents took it a little bit easy against us, that they were surprised to find themselves facing a team as well organised as we were and with good individual players. We played two goalless draws in the first matches against Poland and England and then faced Portugal in a match we both needed to win to advance. We managed a 3-1 victory and went through. It was a huge surprise for everybody to see us through the first round, especially as Portugal had earlier defeated England.”
We were at an advantage, as we knew their players, while they did not know us very well. In those times, it was quite difficult to get information about other teams.
In the knockout stage, Morocco faced West Germany. In a match that was played in extreme heat, Morocco held the Europeans to a goalless draw until two minutes from the end, only to lose to a late Lothar Matthaus free-kick. It is a defeat that continues to sit uncomfortably with Moroccan players. “The defeat against West Germany was not easy to swallow as it was an avoidable goal, and we had the opportunity to win the match. The Germans suffered because of the heat. It was like they were boiling, but I think we were on par with them and it was a balanced game. Even though we lost, the Moroccan people were proud of us. When we came back, we had a parade in front of 100,000 people.”
Legacy of a Lion The historic success laid the groundwork for future generations of Moroccan football, and El Haddaoui captained the young team eight years later at USA 1994. “The team had a lot of quality, very good individuals like Naybet and Mustapha Hadji. But our preparations were not as good as in 1986, even though we set up training camp in Canada. There were also some internal problems. We lost all our group matches and were knocked out. But the experience was good for the players as four years later, they qualified for France.”
Today El Haddaoui is still in contact with many of the players from the 1986 squad, meeting them socially and also participating in matches and exhibitions. He has also been involved in coaching at a national level, having been in charge of youth teams, the Olympic team and the national team consisting of locally-based players. He is now the president of the Moroccan Union of Professional Footballers.
He believes that, under new coach Herve Renard, Morocco can qualify for the World Cup once again. “It was a good decision to get Renard on board. He knows Africa very well. He has charisma, experience. He is is a true leader. And there are very good players in this selection, so I think we have reason to be optimistic.”