• Mustapha Hadji: ‘The Moroccan people have been waiting for this for a long time’

    (The Guardian) The former Coventry midfielder and current Morocco assistant coach talks about what it would mean for the nation to reach a first World Cup since 1998

    For most players, it was the kind of nightmare scenario probably best forgotten. But nearly 20 years since Morocco’s World Cup hopes were so cruelly dashed by Norway’s surprise victory over a Brazil side featuring Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, that golden summer in France is a memory that Mustapha Hadji will always cherish.

    “It was of the law of football. You just have to accept it,” insists the former Coventry and Aston Villa midfielder from his home in Agadir. “I played in front of all my friends and family so it was a special time. Everyone was waiting for Morocco to make it through to the second round but sometimes that’s just the way it is. Maybe if we got through we would have been beaten badly and people would have forgotten all about it. But we played some very good football and that will always stay in the hearts of the Moroccan people.”

    Despite Hadji’s brilliant solo goal in the 2-2 draw with Norway and a 3-0 victory over Scotland in Saint-Étienne in their final match, the Atlas Lions were denied the chance to follow the class of 1986 into the knockout stage after Kjetil Rekdal’s 89th-minute penalty against Brazil in Marseille.

    Two decades on, Morocco have the opportunity to make it to the World Cup for the first time since then when they face Ivory Coast in Abidjan on Saturday needing only a point to qualify. A spectacular transformation in fortunes under the former Ivory Coast manager Hervé Renard, who in 2015 became the first man to win Africa Cup of Nations titles with different countries, has transformed a team that had struggled to live up to the exploits of previous generations and missed out on hosting Africa’s premier competition that year after pulling out because of the Ebola epidemic.

    With Hadji as his assistant, the former Cambridge United manager has led Morocco to the top of Group C after five matches. Now only the mighty Elephants stand in their way.

    “He has done a really great job,” says Hadji. “You can see the atmosphere in the team – there is passion among the players and we have brought in a more professional approach. The spirit is superb and that has made a big difference. Sometimes just having quality isn’t enough.”

    Bolstered by a number of players with Moroccan heritage who were born overseas including the captain, Medhi Benatia of Juventus, the Southampton forward Sofiane Boufal, the Galatasaray playmaker Younès Belhanda and the rising star Achraf Hakimi of Real Madrid, Renard’s side followed up a first quarter-final appearance at the Cup of Nations since 2004 earlier this year with home victories over Mali and Gabon to put themselves in pole position for a place in Russia next summer. Hadji, who represented France at Under-21 level having moved to Alsace-Lorraine as a child, believes they are reaping the benefits of the squad’s varied upbringings.

    “I was probably the first player to choose Morocco and it comes down to what is in your heart,” he says. “It’s not about money or anything else – you play for your own country and represent all your family. I’m really happy with the choice I made and to be able to help the current generation.

    “When you have players like them coming to play for their own country it makes a big difference. We have been able to mix together the best of the players from overseas and those who grew up in Morocco.”

    The appointment of the former government finance minister Fouzi Lekjaa as president of the Moroccan FA in 2013 also proved to be a turning point. Lekjaa has ensured that the success of the country’s thriving domestic league – WAC Casablanca beat Al Ahly in the final of the African Champions League last weekend – has been translated to the national side, with King Mohammed VI also attempting to fulfil his late father Hassan II’s long-term ambition to host the World Cup in 2026 – the fifth time they have bid for the tournament having just missed out to South Africa in 2010. Hadji is in no doubt what qualifying for next year’s edition could do for his country.

    “After Islam, football is our second religion,” he says. “Morocco loves the game and is a real football country. It would be the first time we have qualified since the king came to the throne so we will try to do it for him as well. It would be the biggest gift we can give if we make it. The Moroccan people have been waiting for this for a long time – rich people, poor people, the guy on top of a mountain with his sheep.”

    Hadji moved to England from Deportivo de La Coruña in 1999, forming a formidable partnership with his compatriot Youssef Chippo at Coventry. Despite the club’s demise to League Two since, he still follows their fortunes from afar. His three seasons at Villa Park were not as memorable but Hadji ended up playing professionally until he was almost 40 – winding down his career in the German second division with FC Saarbrücken before moving to Fola Esch in Luxembourg.

    Having spent a year assisting the former Tunisia coach Bertrand Marchand in Qatar, he was approached by Lekjaa in 2014 and offered the chance to become an assistant to Ezzaki Badou, the previous Morocco coach. Badou’s departure last year heralded the arrival of Renard after a disappointing spell in charge of Lille ended in the Frenchman’s sacking, with Hadji retained in his post.

    “It was my dream to come back to the national team,” he says. “When Hervé came in, we had a big meeting and he asked me to stay. I’ve learned a lot under him and now we are more than just colleagues. We are friends who talk a lot and we have the same beliefs about football.”

    With Renard’s intimate knowledge of Ivory Coast’s star-studded squad which includes Manchester United’s Eric Bailly and the Nice playmaker Jean Michaël Seri, Morocco should still fancy their chances of stopping Marc Wilmots’ side reaching the World Cup for the fourth straight tournament. Yet given his experience at France ‘98, Hadji is wary of taking anything for granted.

    “Hervé knows everything about them but we have to be careful,” he says. “Even if you know the players and their mentality like he does, it doesn’t make it easy. We will have to prepare ourselves for a 90-minute fight.

    “The players know they have a great opportunity to become part of Morocco’s football history and only they can make that happen. If we qualify, everyone will remember them for many years to come. You can play in the Premier League or Champions League but the World Cup is something else. To play for your country is the best level anyone can reach.

    “Football is magic – it can do things that no other sport can. It can make you cry in one second and make you feel in love the next. Politics can’t do that. Only football. We have to do it. We cannot just try.”

RSS feed

the Atlas lions news

You are viewing the text version of this site.

To view the full version please install the Adobe Flash Player and ensure your web browser has JavaScript enabled.

Need help? check the requirements page.


Get Flash Player