- Morocco have not graced the FIFA World Cup™ since France 1998
- The Atlas Lions lie second in their group on six points, one behind Côte d’Ivoire
- Twice a CAF Africa Cup of Nations winner, Herve Renard has high hopes of reaching his first world finals
Twenty years have passed since Morocco last appeared at the FIFA World Cup™, when Mustapha Hadji, Youssef Chippo and Salaheddine Bassir wowed the fans at France 1998.
Current Morocco captain Mehdi Benatia was only 11 at the time, while team-mate Hakim Ziyech was aged just five. Having sat out four tournaments since, the Moroccan Football Association focused their attention on Russia 2018 by appointing Frenchman Herve Renard as head coach of the national team. A CAF Africa Cup of Nations winner with Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire, Renard began his tenure with two goalless draws in Group C of the African qualifying competition for Russia 2018, results that left Morocco fans underwhelmed.
Discussing that slow start with FIFA.com,* *he said: “We came back from Gabon with a good result and we wanted to win when we played Côte d’Ivoire, but they were solid opponents. We had two good chances to get the three points but we couldn’t put them away.”
*Hopes revived *Following those results, Morocco travelled back to Gabon for the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, reaching the quarter-finals despite being without a number of first-choice players. In the process, the Atlas Lions* *knocked out defending champions Côte d’Ivoire in the group phase, with their performances rekindling their supporters’ hopes of a place at Russia 2018.
With the continental finals now behind them, the Moroccans are devoting all their attention to World Cup qualifying. They gave their campaign a boost with an emphatic 6-0 win over Mali in Rabat, while group leaders Côte d’Ivoire lost at home to Gabon.
It proved to be a case of feast or famine though, as the return against the Malians in Bamako produced another goalless result. “We took our chances in the first game and didn’t in the second," Renard admitted. "When we missed a penalty and four one-on-ones against the keeper. We dropped points, but so did our rivals. I think we’re still on the right track.”
*The time has come *Most observers are agreed that Group C is one of the tightest of the five in Africa, with Côte d’Ivoire just two points ahead of third-placed Gabon and one in front of Morocco in second. In the next round of games the North Africans will entertain the Gabonese, while the Ivorians travel to Mali, who lie bottom.
Renard does not see that as an advantage, however: “It’ll be a good matchday for us if we can beat Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire lose in Bamako, but that’s just hypothetical right now. We need to repeat the performance we produced against Mali at home. We’ll be playing in Casablanca, where the atmosphere will be white hot, and we need to put ourselves in the best possible position before we go to the Côte d’Ivoire on 6 November.
“They’re not the most balanced team there is, but they do have some superb players, like [Didier] Ndong and [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang,” said Renard, discussing the threat posed by Gabon. “The Gabonese are very strong on the counter, especially when Aubameyang starts. They also know how to cope when they don’t have the Borussia Dortmund striker, as they showed in beating Côte d’Ivoire. That means we can’t take anything for granted against them. We absolutely need to win because any other type of result is going to leave us in a tricky position.”
One month later, Morocco will travel to Côte d’Ivoire for a match that could well be decisive: “I hope that’ll be the case. We have to beat Gabon first, and then prepare for the last match, which we hope will see us qualify for Russia 2018.”
*Daring to dream *Renard is optimistic about his side’s qualification chances: “We’re in a better situation now than we were in September. We had two tough matches against Mali and came through them really well. There are only two points separating third from first in the group and the top three can still all qualify for Russia. I think it’s the most solid and best organised team that will end up going through, and I hope that team is Morocco.”
The former Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire boss is well aware how much the Morocco fans want to see their team back on the big stage: “The whole country’s dreaming about it. The people of Morocco really believe we can qualify. The whole atmosphere has changed especially after the return game against Mali. Everyone knows it’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to do all we can to take the country to the finals for the first time in 20 years.
“I ask every Morocco fan to support us with all their might, like they did against Mali in Rabat. I’m sure that the atmosphere will be even hotter for the Gabon game in Casablanca. If we want to win the game, then we need to start on the front foot.”
*Morocco’s remaining Russia 2018 qualifying fixtures:
*7 October: Gabon (h)
6 November: Côte d’Ivoire (a)