Lionel Messi and his victorious Argentina team were the big winners of the 2022 Fifa World Cup, but the only team that came close to being feted as much as the Albiceleste were Morocco’s Atlas Lions.
The North Africans placed a somewhat distant fourth, after losing their semi-final game to eventual runners-up France and the match for bronze to Croatia, but they had far less reason to rue the outcome of their campaign than either of those opponents that overcame them on those occasions.
France and Croatia, brilliant though they were for much of the tournament, even coming away with medals, still ended up with slightly less-coveted prizes than they secured at the last World Cup where the latter were defeated by the former in the final.
Morocco, though, had no such regrets.
It wasn’t just because they outdid, by some distance, the admittedly decent Moroccan team that crashed out of the group stage at Russia 2018. By reaching the last four, they’d achieved the impossible, the first African (or Arab) side to advance that far at the Mundial.
No great letdown, then, that Morocco were the only semi-finalists to depart Qatar empty-handed, having broken new ground for themselves and for their continent. Still, the Moroccans would be the first to admit they didn’t quite realise the vision of a fairytale ending that began to appear as their run entered uncharted territory, and which head coach Walid Regragui believed was within reach.
“We can dream,” Regragui said after that historic quarter-final defeat of Portugal, talking up his side’s chances of going all the way to lift the trophy in Lusail just eight days later.
“Why shouldn’t we dream? If you don’t dream, you don’t get anywhere. It doesn’t cost you anything to have dreams.”
Those dreams went unfulfilled, needless to say, but a Moroccan side needn’t wait another four years for another shot at lifting a World Cup. That, in fact, could happen as early as next month, when Morocco hosts the 2022 Fifa Club World Cup (CWC).
The country would be represented by Wydad Athletic Club (WAC), the current Caf Champions League holders. It would be only the second time WAC play at the CWC, the fifth participation overall of a Moroccan club. That sends them level with Casablanca rivals Raja in terms of number of appearances at the event, but WAC are yet to do something Raja have already done thrice in seven attempts: win a game.
WAC played two matches when they made their bow at the 2017 tournament, losing both, to Mexican outfit Pachuca and Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan. They commence their latest involvement on the world stage come February 4 against Al-Hilal, the Asian representatives, with the winner going on to face Brazil’s Flamengo in the semis; beyond that lies the prospect of a date with record winners Real Madrid in the final.
That sounds straightforward enough, yet it’s anything but.
Only two African teams, TP Mazembe (2010) and Raja (2013), have ever contested the competition’s final, both losing. The latter had the advantage of playing at home, with Morocco chosen as hosts the first time (and the second time, in 2014, as well as an imminent third) the CWC was staged in Africa.
More than that, though, WAC also get to ride the wave of excellence and success that Moroccan football has enjoyed in the last few years, the most recent example of which was the senior national team’s success at the recent World Cup.
If there was a sense of unfinished business — though far from what might be described as a bitter aftertaste — when Morocco’s memorable campaign was over, WAC can now tie those loose ends and make it all feel a bit more complete, albeit in a different competition, before the trail of inspiration goes cold.
Yahya Jabrane is one of three players who featured at the World Cup readying themselves for roles in WAC’s story at the upcoming CWC.
The 31-year-old didn’t feature much in Qatar, under Regragui, the coach whose WAC team he skippered to Champions League glory earlier in 2022. Jabrane had a taste of just two games, seeing a total of 15 minutes of action, but he felt every bit of the emotional charge that swept the team towards the hitherto improbable.
And, yes, he hopes to carry over some of that appetite for achieving the unprecedented.
“I’m grateful to have been part of a squad that created Moroccan football history. It’s a source of pride for me and a highlight of my football career. I hope we can repeat such a historic achievement again in the future,” he told Fifa+ this week.
“One of the biggest lessons I learnt was that nothing is impossible, nothing is too difficult when you work hard and give your all to football. When you believe in your ability, nothing is impossible.
“We need to ensure this is not a one-off. We need to consistently go far [in competitions] and raise the profile of Moroccan players on the global football scene.”
The CWC is the next-best chance to do just that, and it’s only right that the opportunity to write a fitting sequel to the national team’s tale falls to WAC, now coached by former Leganes and Levante trainer Mehdi Nafti.
Historically, and especially in the colonial era, they’ve always been the one Moroccan club occupying a special place in the hearts of the people, by virtue of being the nation’s first sporting club of a truly indigenous character upon its founding in 1937.
Surely, then, they’d be cheered all the way by almost as many as lined up by the streets to meet the ‘triumphant’ heroes on their return from the World Cup. And, just as certainly, any successes recorded — culminating in the delivery of the ultimate, they’d hope — would be embraced and celebrated by much, if not all, of Morocco.
Enn Y. Frimpong — Ink & Kicks