By Emmanuel Okara
After the draws for the FIFA Qatar 2022, World Cup was made and Morocco found itself in Group F alongside Belgium, Croatia and Canada, many football pundits including yours truly did not believe that the Atlas Lions would make it to the round of 16 much less the semifinals of a global football fiesta.
In hindsight, their remarkable feat at the ongoing Qatar World Cup is reminiscent of their remarkable performance in the Mexico ’86 World Cup, where the enterprising North African team became the first Africans to qualify for the second round of the FIFA World Cup.
In addition, they topped Group F consisting of England, Portugal, and Poland – this was after playing a draw with England and Poland respectively and beating Portugal 3-1; after many pundits had regarded the Atlas Lions as the whipping boys of the group.
It took the shooting skills of Lothar Matthaeus and a rampaging W.Germany under the tutelage of Franz Beckenbauer (Der Kaiser) to knock out the Atlas Lions (1-0) from the 1986 World Cup in the second round.
Now, fast forward to the present and we found that the Atlas Lions have not only re-enacted their feat from 36 years ago, but are on the cusp of additional history (because they had made history by becoming the first African country to qualify for the semifinals of a FIFA World Cup); if they can beat Les Bleu, and qualify for the finals of the 2022 World Cup.
If you think that the Atlas Lions of Morocco got to where they are today, through a stroke of good fortune then you are wrong, because the Moroccans can be said to have pulled themselves up by the strap of their boots and very sound investments by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation.
Emphasis on the development of Moroccan football was on Facilities, Talent and Well Qualified Technical Staff from which the country is reaping from today, no wonder the North African country could bid to host 1994, 1998, and 2026 World even though abortive and is even eying the 2030 World Cup.
Incidentally, they were running neck-and-neck with South Africa for the hosting of the 2010 World Cup before the Nelson Mandela factor and other shenanigans swung the hosting rights to South Africa.
According to Coach Walid Regragui ” We are becoming a team everyone loves because we are showing what we can achieve.
“If you show passing, heart and belief, you can succeed and my players have shown that.
“It is not a miracle – those in Europe might say it is, but we have beaten Portugal, Spain, Belgium and drawn against Croatia without conceding. That is the result of hard work.
“African and Arab teams work hard and we have made our people happy and proud. The whole continent is proud.”
Now that the Atlas Lions have been matched up against Les Bleu of France the 2018 winners of the World Cup in Russia – the showdown between France and Morocco (Colonialist and former Colony if you like) will be one of epic proportions because the Atlas Lions are taking on arguably the BEST team in the world today, and have nothing to lose.
If anything, it’s Les Bleu that has its football reputation and pride at stake so to speak.
As an analyst, my money was on the Teranga Lions, the Indomitable Lions and the Black Stars before the Qatar World Cup kicked off – the Atlas Lions and the Carthage Eagles were not included in my opinion but today they standing on the threshold of history where anything can happen.
Now that the Atlas Lions are in the eyes of the storm and with History beckoning on them once again, the onus is on the goalkeeper Bono, Hakim Ziyech, Ashraf Hakimi, Sufyan Amrabat, En-Nesyri, Walid Cheddira, Badr Benoun, Zakaria Aboukhal to strive to etch their names among the pantheons of great football nations.
Enough said for now!
Okara, a sports editor, writes from Lagos