The Lions of the Atlas: Resistance to the Iberian Giants
Nabhan Abdul Salam
The Moroccan national team also known as ‘The Lions of the Atlas’ made quite a name for themselves in the ongoing World Cup in Russia. Their best performance in the World Cup was when they reached the Round of 16 in 1986 to become the first African country to do so. They emerged as the winners from a heavy group that consisted of Poland, England and Portugal. They eventually lost to West Germany, the finalist of the 1986 World Cup on a scoreline of 1-0 in the pre-quarter final. The present Moroccan national team managed by Herve Renard is the best they’ve had since the glorious 1986 team.
In 1998, the Moroccan squad had only two players who were born outside the North Afarican country. In 2018, 20 years later, the next time they qualified, 17 of the 23 member squad were players born outside Morocco. Out of the 17, five were from Netherlands. Prodigiously gifted players like Nordin Amrabat, Hakim Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi,Captain Medhi Benatia are all players born outside Morocco. The story of Morocco’s successful qualification is perhaps the best modern illustration of how nations have turned to global diaspora to achieve success in soccer. In the past decade Europe has seen a rise in the political parties with right wing nationalist sentiment who are hyper critical of previously open immigration policies. Some of those forces have made electoral gains, too including the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, which is led by Geert Wilders, who has been repeatedly targeting the nation’s Moroccan minority with racist slurs. While campaigning last year, Wilders described Moroccans as “scums.”
The Moroccan squad is a team of many tongues. Players in the squad speak French, Flemish, Arabic, Dutch, Spanish, German and Tamazight, a Berber language spoken in parts of the country. Coach Renard delivers his pre-match and half-time talks in English and French and the assistant coach Mustapha Hadji steps in when Arabic is needed. “For me it was completely different. We build one team. We are going to play football. I didn’t see anything different than in Zambia, or Ivory Coast or in France, except for the speech before the game: I have to do one speech in English, and one speech in French ”, said the manager who has also coached other national teams like Zambia, Ivory Coast and Angola. Renard is also the first coach to win the CAF Africa Cup of Nations with different countries.
In the first match against Iran, Renard sent his squad in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Mbark Boussoufa playing in a defensive position rather than his natural attacking position. Renard made Boussoufa also known as ‘The King of the Assists’ step back from his attacking duties and play defensively along with El Ahmadi which didn’t seem too effective although Morocco had most of the ball in the match (68% possession).
The French coach stuck with the same formation in the second match against Portugal and didn’t let European Champions to score except for an early slip up in the defence which left the Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo to an open header. Captain Medhi Benatia missed a couple of good chances in the match. They had 55% of the ball possession in that match. The attacks by the Moroccans missed an element of sharpness.
In the third match, Renard played his team in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Mbark Boussoufa as an attacking midfielder and El Ahmadi as the pivot. Amrabat and Hakimi played in their usual positions as a right winger and overlapping left back respectively. Renard surprisingly dropped Captain Medhi Benatia from the starting 11 and replaced him with Romain Saiss as a Centre Back switching from his box-to-box natural habitat. Morocco successfully scored first and put pressure on the much experienced Spanish side. They scored their first goal in the World Cup 2018 Finals against the 2010 Champions.
Although the match ended in a 2-2 draw, the young Moroccan side had their moments including a screamer by Amrabat from outside the D-box that hit the crossbar and a one-on-one moment for striker Boutaib with De Gea that he failed to convert.
Morocco being the underdogs have certainly entertained the spectators and earned their respect and love in Russia despite they are returning home winless. Their play could be described more as ‘fluidic’ than ‘orchestrated’. Morocco is not anymore a team to be taken for granted.