Morocco had to scrap every inch of the way to secure their place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013. The Atlas Lion Cubs made sure of their maiden world finals appearance at this age level when hosting and competing in the African U-17 Championship for the first time at the start of the year.

Drawn into Group A at the continental finals, the hosts surprised everyone by picking up seven points to top a section that also featured Tunisia, Botswana and Gabon. Their place at UAE 2013 duly secured, they then lost to Côte d’Ivoire in the semi-finals before going down to Tunisia in the match for third place.

Though the home supporters we disappointed the young Moroccans did not fare even better, coach Abdallah El Idrissi was happy with their efforts: “We can take a lot from that competition. The boys showed plenty of good things and reached the objective we set for ourselves, which was to qualify for the U-17 World Cup.”

Preparation time
Of the 25 players El Idrissi called up for the training camp in Morocco at the start of the month, 16 play in Europe. And while that high number points to a bright future for Morocco, it is also true that several of the coach’s star players missed the get-together due to their clubs’ unwillingness to release them, making his job all the harder. El Idrissi’s task now is to get the personnel he does have at his disposal – some of them little known to him – playing as a unit.

He can at least count on Hamza Sakhi to help him achieve that. Tracked by a number of European clubs, this rising star of Moroccan football excelled in the African championships and has just signed a three-year contract with French Ligue 2 side Chateauroux.

Last month’s draw in the UAE pitted the Atlas Lion Cubs against Uzbekistan, Panama and Croatia in Group C. “It’s a tight section,” said their goalkeeper Oussayd Belkouch, who plays for FC Bruges. “They’re all good teams, but I hope we can reach the second round all the same.”

Voicing his determination to succeed, the coach said: “Our goal is to play our very best football, no matter who we’re up against. We’re preparing as hard as we can for each match and we want to qualify from the group.”

He added: “We need to take a close look at our opponents and make sure there are no nasty surprises in store for us. We have to do justice to Moroccan football on the global stage, and our fans are expecting a lot from us.”

The Moroccans will begin their final get-together in UAE this week and have lined up a friendly against fellow world finalists Canada, who have been drawn in Group E alongside Austria, Iran and Argentina.