Morocco could hardly pick worse circumstances for heading into their opening World Cup game. Wednesday brought with it the Fifa vote that confirmed a crushing fifth failed attempt to host the greatest show on Earth.
It also happens to be a game they desperately cannot stumble in. This evening’s game against Iran represents their only chance to gain a foothold in an impossible-looking Group B. Beyond the Persians lie Spain and a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal. Unless the North Africans wake up with three points in the morning it’s difficult to see them in the knockout stages.
Neither Fernando Hierro’s La Roja nor their Iberian rivals are favourites to lift the trophy but they should have enough to sail safely to the last 16.
On a mission to buck those expectations is Hervé Renard. The French coach is riding the Lions of the Atlas through a hot swell of late, having gone unbeaten in the last 18 games. He also stamped down a precedent for extracting the most his teams have to offer. In 2012, he took an unfancied Zambia to the African Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and returned with a maiden title. He would do the same with Côte d’Ivoire in 2015, a golden team that until then had constantly slipped on the big stage.
Renard takes a solid set of players to Russia — most of whom earn their pay cheques in Europe. The most prominent name among them is regular Juventus centre-back Medhi Benatia, who comes into the games having just lifted the Series A title. Teenage right-back Achraf Hakimi is also in that conversation after a breakout season at Real Madrid.
This crop will have to make their own history as there is little of note in terms of footballing achievements to build on. The North Africans take part in their first finals since 1998. Their prior appearances have been wretched, bar Mexico 1986.
That year, after a stalemate with Poland, England tried to snuff out their hopes. Ray Wilkins, who died in April, would get sent off early and his teammates subsequently struggled to break down a stubborn defence. Morocco rode the momentum and stunningly upset Portugal 3-1 to become the first African side to progress to the knockout stages. They would hold their own against Franz Beckenbauer’s West Germany in the last 16 as well, only falling out in large part owing to concentration lapses.
The parallels this year are obvious: a group of death, a more fancied Portugal standing in their way.
Losing out on World Cup hosting rights yet again will have clobbered their morale. What’s more, there has been increased focus on their oppression of Western Sahara. Many countries, such as South Africa, refused to give their hosting vote to the North Africans on that basis. Sworn enemies Danny Jordaan and Irvin Khoza even managed a grin as they came together to vote for the United States, Canada and Mexico.
With an early exit written in the stars, this could be a bad few weeks for the Morocco. Unless they can repeat the heroics of 1986, Russia 2018 will likely go down as a period they will strive to forget.