As the creme de la creme of world football meet in Qatar from November 20 to December 18, 2022, APA gives a lowdown of Africa's five representatives at the showpiece event, beginning with the Atlas Lions of Morocco.
By Ibrahima Dione
In Qatar, Morocco will participate in its sixth World Cup after 1970, 1986, 1994, 1998 and 2018.
In this competition, the Atlas Lions will forever remain the very first to fly the flag of the continent at the knockout stage.
This took place 36 years ago in Mexico.
A respectable run was halted in the Round of 16 by a goal from Lothar Matthaus for West Germany, who went to become losing finalists against an Argentina led and inspired by a certain Diego Maradona.
Since then, the three appearances by Morocco have been short-lived, with elimination happening in the first round.
Four years ago in Russia, the team coached by Frenchman Hervé Renard hit the wall against Iran (losing 1-0), lost with honours to Portugal but held Spain to a 2-2 draw.
This time, Morocco intends to cause an upset in Qatar, where they are not expected to win.
"In a Group F where finalist of the last edition Croatia, semi-finalist (Belgium) lie in wait Morocco and Canada are the two underdogs" said Sahelinko Cissokho, sports journalist at MEDI 1 TV (private Moroccan channel).
Jamal Waalam, a journalist and presenter with Moroccan public television 2M, admits that "it would be a great achievement to qualify for the last 16... With their golden generation (Hazard, De Bruyne, Courtois...), the Belgian Red Devils are a scarecrow, the Croatians led by the unplayable 37-year-old Luka Modric are back in the frame while the Canadians of the stirring fullback Alphonso Davies are back on the international football scene after a 36-year absence.
But, as Mr Cissokho points out, Morocco "want to believe in their dreams and create a sensation''.
On paper, they present a pretty solid team defensively and talented players up front like Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri.
The rigid Vahid Halilhodzic, criticised for his authoritarian management style, was replaced in August as coach by Walid Regragui, the most recent winner of the African Champions League with Wydad Athletic Club.
A former Moroccan international and finalist at the African Cup of Nations in 2004 (losing two goals to one against Tunisia), the new coach is not looking for an overhauling of everything he inherited from his predecessor.
Recognising that the Atlas Lions are in a transitional phase he wants to keep the players at his disposal but recalled Abderrazak Hamdallah, who was sidelined since his clash with Hervé Renard at AfCON 2019 and omitted Younes Belhanda or Fayçal Fajr" from his list for the World Cup released last week, comments Sahelinko Cissokho.
This group "is on the whole homogeneous and balanced. It is in line with the aspirations of the coach...We can clearly see the eleven who could start and how the team would play" Waalam says.
Walid Regragui, 46, is not starting from scratch. His predecessor had time to lay the foundations for a revival.
The Atlas Lions were drawn in Group I of the second round of the World Cup qualifiers and only managed to beat Guinea Bissau, Guinea and Sudan.
In this faultless run, six wins in as many games, Morocco scored twenty goals and conceded just once.
In the first leg of the play-off, Romain Saiss and his partners drew 1-1 with the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Martyrs' stadium in Kinshasa, before sinking the Leopards in the return leg in Casablanca (4-1).
Halilhodzic relied heavily on counter-attacks, while Regragui opted for dominating possession.
Under him, Morocco played two friendlies against Chile (a two-nil win) and Paraguay (a goalless draw) in Spain in September 2022.
''We saw a team that played forward to win," said the presenter at 2M.
His colleague from MEDI 1 TV was of the same opinion.
According to him too, "there is an improvement in the content of the game in view of these matches. This is what the Moroccan public asked for".
In this desire for the beautiful game, Amine Harit, as a starter or off the bench, could be satisfied.
Unfortunately, the Olympique de Marseille forward, who suffered a sprained cruciate knee ligament last Sunday during the clash against AS Monaco in the French Ligue 1, was forced to pull out.
"This injury hurts my heart. Harit could play anywhere in attack", says Jamal Waalam ruefully.
Sahelinko Cissokho considers it ''a real blow for Morocco because Harit was in full revival".
With a spine comprising Yacine Bounou (goalkeeper), Romain Saiss, Achraf Hakimi (defenders), Sofyan Amrabet (midfielder) and Hakim Ziyech (striker), Walid Regragui is within range of springing a surprise during the tournament in Qatar.
In any case, "Moroccans who are fans of absolute football, believe in their team... They want the Atlas Lions to make them proud," says Cissokho.
"The expectations are very high...This national team is a dream because it is full of players who are excelling in European leagues" Waalam adds.
The Moroccan squad for the Qatar 2022
Goalkeepers: Yassine Bounou (Sevilla, Spain), Munir Mohamedi (Al Wehda) and Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti (Wydad Casablanca, Morocco).
Defenders: Achraf Hakimi (Paris Saint-Germain, France), Noussair Mazraoui (Bayern Munich, Germany), Nayef Aguerd (West Ham, England), Romain Saiss (Besiktas, Turkey), Achraf Dari (Stade Brestois, France), Jawad El Yamiq (Real Valladolid, Spain), Yahya Attiat Allah (Wydad Casablanca, Morocco) and Badr Benoun (Qatar SC, Qatar).
Midfielders: Sofyan Amrabet (Fiorentina, Italy), Selim Amallah (Standard de Liège, Belgium), Azzedine Ounahi (Angers SCO, France), Yahya Jabrane (Wydad Casablanca, Morocco), Abdelhamid Sabiri (Sampdoria, Italy) and Bilal El Khannouss (Genk, Belgium).
Forwards: Ilias Chair (Queens Park Rangers, England), Abderrazak Hamdallah (Ittihad Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), Hakim Ziyech (Chelsea, England), Youssef En-Nesyri (Sevilla, Spain), Abdessamad Ezzalzouli (Osasuna, Spain), Zakaria Aboukhlal (Toulouse, France), Sofiane Boufal (Angers, France) and Walid Cheddira (Bari, Italy).
Coach: Walid Regragui (Morocco)
Matchday 1: Morocco – Croatia, Wednesday 23 November, 10:00 (UTC)
Matchday 2: Belgium – Morocco, Sunday 27 November, 13:00 (UTC)
Matchday 3: Canada – Morocco, Thursday 1 December, 15:00 (UTC)