• Renard: ‘Sarri’s Napoli wonderful’

    By Football Italia

    Morocco Coach Hervé Renard calls Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli “wonderful” but admits “my favourite team is Juventus”.

    The Atlas Lions are going to the World Cup this summer, and the Bianconeri’s Medhi Benatia will be a key man in their defence.

    “I have a precise idea of football, but you need the right players to make it happen,” Renard explained to La Repubblica.

    “When I saw Sarri’s Napoli press high, win the ball back and play as they played, that is wonderful football.

    “I was bewitched by Sarri and in general I follow a lot of Italian football: my favourite team is Juventus.

    “[Michel] Platini, [Didier] Deschamps and [Zinédine] Zidane struck me. Every Frenchman is a little bit Juventino.

    “I love Juventus because I see [Giorgio] Chiellini, [Andrea] Barzagli and first of all [Gigi] Buffon motivated and motivating the others with their warrior spirit: that’s my ideal model.

    “They’re not the best individually, but together that’s what they’ve become.”

    The 49-year-old has spent much of his coaching career in Africa, and is well placed to dispel some misconceptions.

    “Black Africa, for example, has different characteristics to those of the Maghreb. In Europe Italy isn’t Sweden, is it?

    “One gets the impression that everything is poor, that there are no modern places. European prejudices are radical and often wrong.

    “In Morocco you have everything you can find in Europe. It’s a country which is developing really well, there’s high level infrastructure.

    “I could talk for hours about this but no-one would understand, because Europeans have a view of Africa that disturbs me.

    “There are too many clichés, it’s like saying that Naples is the Mafia and that’s it. You can’t claim that an entire continent isn’t civilised.”

  • Press review: In Morocco, an Imported Team for the World Cup

    CASABLANCA, Morocco — Even before he began talking with midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, Ruud Gullit knew he would fail to convince him.

    The sales pitch — persuading Amrabat, a prodigiously gifted 21-year-old, to commit to playing for the Netherlands internationally — had some built-in advantages. Amrabat, after all, had been born in the village of Huizen, close to Amsterdam. He had lived his entire life in the country, and had played all his club soccer there.

    But now he had a choice to make: to link his national team future to the Netherlands, where he had learned the game, or to Morocco, the North African country of his parents and grandparents.

    “The family pushes you to play for Morocco,” said Gullit, a famed Dutch player who was an assistant coach with the national team when he spoke with Amrabat last year. “So therefore there was no choice. I think they have no choice.”

    Amrabat is one of five Dutch-born players in the Moroccan roster headed to the World Cup this month, a squad that also includes a captain born in France and playing in Italy, and a defender from Spain schooled at Real Madrid. In fact, the Moroccan team’s return to soccer’s top tournament for the first time in 20 years has relied on a squad populated almost entirely by players born outside the country and forged in the academies of clubs and national associations scattered across Europe.

    When Morocco turned in its final roster on Monday, the list showed 17 players out of 23 born outside of the country. The truth is, there could have been even more.

    The young attacker Mimoun Mahi was among those who missed out, but his career is a case study that explains the appeal of Morocco to players born hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of miles away.

    Sitting at a table in the training complex of his Dutch club, F.C. Groningen, earlier this year, Mahi’s face lit up as he described the moment he scored in his debut for Morocco last September. Mahi’s goal was hardly remarkable, a late tap-in in a 6-0 thumping of Mali. But to score it and know that his parents, who had left Morocco for Europe three decades earlier, now stood crying tears of joy amid the seething masses inside Rabat’s Prince Moulay Adbdellah stadium meant everything.

    “It’s unbelievable to see your son there in the stadium, all the years only watching on TV and your own son is there,” the Netherlands-born, Netherlands-trained Mahi said, his memory suddenly bringing the moment back.

    Other fathers, and other sons, surely felt the same emotions that day: All six Morocco goals against Mali came off the feet of players born in Europe.

    Continental Roots

    The story of Morocco’s successful qualification is perhaps the best modern illustration of how nations have turned to a global diaspora to achieve success in soccer. Morocco’s last World Cup team, in 1998, had only two players born outside the country. Now it has 17. And many of the current stars are products of a recruitment campaign that gained force in 2014, the year a team from rival Algeria rode French-born talent into the second round of the World Cup.

    But the success of Morocco’s campaign is also is a reminder of how, as a revivalist nationalism sweeps across Europe, some players have come to consider the nations of their parents and grandparents a better fit than the countries they have long called home.

    The Netherlands, along with France, is the birthplace of the majority of the players that will star for Morocco this summer. Other players have been sourced through a vast Moroccan grapevine of scouts in Belgium, Germany and Spain. To be sure, Morocco isn’t the only team at the World Cup that cast a net beyond its borders in efforts to create a winning team: Tunisia’s star midfielder Wahbi Khazri is among several French-born players on its squad, and Senegal, Portugal, Switzerland and even host Russia have called in players who were born abroad.

    But no team will arrive in Russia with foreign players in such abundant numbers as Morocco.

    “We explained to them the most important thing is team spirit,” Morocco’s French coach, Hervé Renard, said. “To achieve something in football, if you don’t have team spirit, it doesn’t matter where you are coming from.”

    The agent Charaf Boudhan explained that players who have the option to play for multiple countries often face a complex equation, one typically guided by family ties and emotion on one side, and careful professional calculation on the other.

    Morocco’s top scorer, Hakim Ziyech, was born in Dronten, in the center of the Netherlands. Ziyech initially appeared to opt for his birth country, telling an interviewer in 2015 that for him, “the decisive factor is the Netherlands often leads to big tournament.” Then the Dutch failed to reach the 2016 European Championship, and he had a change of heart.

    For Mahi, who like Ziyech represented the Netherlands at the junior level, the decision was a case of fulfilling his father’s dreams. “I think with the heart,” Mahi said, “and the heart was for Morocco.”

    There are practical concerns with committing to an African side over an established European one, though. Travel can be daunting and conditions challenging. And since the major African continental championship was played every two years in January, making oneself available for it — and missing club games as a result — can create major conflicts between players and their European teams. A lost place in the squad after a month away can have serious professional consequences.

    For some players, however, identity matters more. Europe has seen a rise in the past decade of nationalist sentiment, and of political parties critical of previously open immigration policies. Some of those forces have made electoral gains, including the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, whose leader, Geert Wilders, has repeatedly targeted the nation’s Moroccan minority with racist language. While campaigning last year, Wilders described Moroccans as “scum.”

    Maurice Crul, a professor from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam whose research topics include the children of immigrants in Europe, said the current crop of players deciding their national team allegiances was part of the post 9/11 generation, a group that “became aware their religion is not wanted.”

    That has pushed groups already on the margins of European society because of poverty, or language, or culture, further away from the mainstream. “It’s a big issue that this generation felt excluded from the very start of their lives,” Crul said.

    But there has been opposition inside soccer, too. In 2011, a leaked recording of Laurent Blanc, France’s coach at the time, revealed him saying he was in favor of limiting the number of places for players with dual citizenship at national soccer academies.

    “It should be eradicated entirely,” Blanc said in the recording. “I don’t mean that in a racist way or anything. When these guys wear our national team jersey from 16, 18 all the way to under 21 before leaving for African or North African teams, it bothers me greatly. So ideally, we should say, but not officially, that we won’t accept more than X number of kids who might opt out at some point. Like a quota without saying that out loud.”

    The comments caused a firestorm, and split even veterans of the multicultural France team that Blanc had captained to the 1998 World Cup title. But two inquiries cleared him of accusations of discrimination, and he kept his post as France’s coach.

    A Team of Many Tongues

    After a rash of nations’ naturalizing players for the sole purpose of boosting their national team talent pools, FIFA in 2004 started requiring players to demonstrate a “clear connection” to the country for which they wanted to play. FIFA continued to allow players to switch nationalities — the United States, Italy and Spain, among many others, have taken advantage — provided the players fulfilled several requirements and had not appeared in any competitive senior-level games.

    In Morocco’s case, that allowed several players who had turned out for junior national teams in Europe to switch allegiances. Still, collecting players from a variety of countries presents its own challenges.

    Morocco’s players, for example, arrive for training camps speaking a mix of French, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch and German, but also Arabic and Tamazight, a Berber language spoken in parts of the country.

    Renard, the team’s French coach, has coached African teams for more than a decade. He navigates the thicket of languages by conducting his prematch and halftime team talks in both English and French; his assistant Mustapha Hadji, a popular member of Morocco’s 1998 World Cup squad, steps in when Arabic is required.

    “Sometimes you realize one player in front of you doesn’t understand what you are saying,” Renard said in an interview in Casablanca in January. “I call the assistant and say, ‘Please to talk to him because I can see his face — he’s not understanding.’”

    Renard said some friends and colleagues advised him against accepting the Morocco job in 2016, telling him it wouldn’t be possible to bring together players drawn from so many backgrounds. But the Lions of the Atlas, as the team is known, roared unbeaten through the final phase of World Cup qualifying, comfortably beating their closest challenger, Ivory Coast, in the final game to seal their return to the World Cup.

    “They told me before, ‘Be careful, because the guys born in Netherlands sometimes they are not very happy with a guy born in France,” Renard said. “But to be honest, I didn’t see that.

    “For me it was completely different. We build one team. We are going to play football. I didn’t see anything different than in Zambia, or Ivory Coast or in France, except for the speech before the game: I have to do one speech in English, and one speech in French.”

    A Soccer Haven

    Traverse any major Moroccan city and soccer’s popularity quickly reveals itself: children play makeshift games wherever they can find space, and television screens everywhere broadcast the latest match. An entire generation of soccer fans now will get to see their national team play at the World Cup for the first time, making it easy for many to overlook the fact that team taking the field against Iran, Portugal and Spain in the group stage will be made up, in large part, of foreign-born and foreign-trained talent.

    “They love Morocco; that’s why they play for us even though they are from elsewhere,” Omar Ghazaz, a 72-year-old dentist, said in January during a morning break to sip coffee and bask in some winter sunlight on a side street adjoining Casablanca’s main market.

    He and others knew that Renard was even then continuing his “missions” — a euphemism he uses to describe the federation’s attempts to discover, and persuade, new players with Moroccan heritage to sign on. A Christmas trip to see Manchester City’s Spanish-born attacker Brahim Diaz ended without resolution, and in May the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected an appeal that would have allowed a promising 22-year-old forward, Munir El Haddadi, to switch his allegiance from his native Spain to Morocco.

    Efforts like that could mean even more competition for places for Mahi, but he has already made his choice. For now he will continue to play his club soccer in the Netherlands, which remains home. Mahi’s wife, Daisy, is Dutch, and he said he had delayed transferring to an overseas team because he wanted his first child to be born in the Netherlands.

    Lana Sophia Mahi was born in March. Like her father, she is eligible to represent both the Netherlands and Morocco.


  • Amine Harit: Morocco's secret weapon for the World Cup

    It has been some journey for Schalke midfielder Amine Harit. Two years ago, the French-born Morocco international was still playing for the Nantes reserves, but now he is hoping to shine on the biggest stage of them all as he heads to the FIFA World Cup with the Atlas Lions.

    "It's all gone very quickly!" the 20-year-old admitted to French sports daily L'Équipe in early June. "But I'm not going to complain. I'm vying for a starting place with my national team, and at the World Cup to boot. I think there's a little star watching over me."

    The planets have certainly aligned very nicely for Harit in a short space of time. As recently as February 2017, he was dropped from the Nantes first team by coach Sergio Conceicao for going to a nightclub two days before a league game against Dijon. The incident did little to improve the reputation of a player who was already seen as something of a party animal.

    From party animal to lionheart

    "It was hard for me to change that perception," Harit admitted. "People were saying, 'he's just a little idiot', and I could understand their reaction. It was a mistake. If you do that here in Germany, you're dead. If you're an important player and you're exhausted, or you get injured for three months, if you let your team down, then it's normal to pay the price."

    Harit's carefree attitude came very close to costing him a place at the UEFA U19 Euro in 2016, when he was still representing his native France. But coach Ludovic Batelli was impressed with his improved work ethic in the run-up to the tournament, and chose to take a punt on a player he described as "enormously talented".

    The gamble paid handsome dividends as France lifted their eighth title, with Harit making the team of the tournament after providing five-star service for top scorer Jean-Kevin Augustin – now of RB Leipzig – and Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe. When he returned to Nantes Harit was promoted to the first team, before joining Schalke in 2017.

    The Tedesco touch

    "Amine is a smart, technical player with excellent dribbling skills, who also helps out defensively," Royal Blues coach Domenico Tedesco told the club's official website, after Harit signed a four-year deal with the Gelsenkirchen club. "He often looks for original attacking solutions and can really make a difference. We're delighted to bring him on board."

    Though it took him a few weeks to find his feet in the Bundesliga, Harit was soon flourishing under Tedesco – unsurprising for a player who believes it is "hugely important" to have a special relationship with his coaches – and his maiden season eventually exceeded all expectations. As well as tying opposition defenders in knots with his electric pace and mazy dribbles, the 20-year-old contributed three goals and three assists as the Royal Blues finished second behind Bayern Munich to ensure a return to the UEFA Champions League.

    Harit's derby heroics

    The fleet-footed midfielder earned himself a place in Schalke folklore for his part in the sensational 4-4 draw with bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund in November's Revierderby. Harit came off the bench with his side 4-0 down and turned the game on its head, scoring his first Bundesliga goal and soldiering on until the final whistle despite a gash in his calf. While that particular game won him the affection of the Royal Blue faithful, his superb performances throughout the campaign earned him the TAG Heuer Rookie of the Season award.

    "When I moved from Nantes to Schalke, I had to seriously up my game," Harit admitted. "In the Bundesliga, you have a lot less time to control the ball, and you have to put in two or three times as much effort. If you think you're just going to be playing the ball into feet, nice and easy does it, you're in for a rude awakening. I had to work with a physical trainer after every session. My goal now is to bulk up so that I can stay on my feet better."

    As well as bringing him to the attention of the wider footballing world, 2017/18 had a major impact on Harit's international career. Eligible to play for Morocco through his parents, who hail from Casablanca, he chose to represent the Atlas Lions in September 2017.

    A change of allegiance

    The Moroccan Federation had been trying to lure Harit away from France for over a year, and head coach Hervé Renard eventually convinced him to make the switch. He made his debut in a World Cup qualifier against Gabon at the Stade Mohamed V in Casablanca, where he used to watch games with his father and uncles as a boy.

    "I came on a few minutes before the end, but it was as if I'd played the whole game," Harit smiled. "The atmosphere is extraordinary. It brought back memories of going to the stadium as a kid to watch a game between Wydad and Raja.

    "You never forget the first coach who calls you up to the national team," he added. "And coach Renard has given me the possibility of playing at a World Cup at the age of 20, so I'll be grateful to him all my life. It's different with him because of his charisma, his aura. Those white shirts! (laughs) He's a tough coach, but fair. And away from football it's great, he's always laughing with us."

    To Russia with love

    The mood in the Morocco camp will no doubt become more solemn as the country gears up for a first World Cup since 1998. Harit was only a year old when the Atlas Lions were knocked out in the group stage in France, despite a memorable 3-0 win over Scotland. In Russia they face the arduous task of coming through a group containing Portugal and Spain, although they will be looking to make a bright start in their opener against Iran, which arrives three days before Harit's 21st birthday.

    Morocco have enjoyed a successful build-up to the World Cup, while their home-based players stormed to victory at the inaugural African Nations Championship in February. But it is Schalke's former enfant terrible turned Bundesliga star who could turn out to be the X factor as they look to reach the knockout stages for just the second time in their history. Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and co. have been warned.


  • Press review: Belhanda gives Morocco deserved warm-up win over Slovakia

    GENEVA (Reuters) - Morocco’s Ayoub Kaabi and Younes Belhanda scored in a 10-minute second-half spell to give the World Cup-bound side a convincing 2-1 win over Slovakia in a warm-up friendly on Monday.

    The North Africans, who play Spain, Portugal and Iran in their first appearance at the finals since 1998, dominated the first half and nearly went ahead when Hakim Ziyech hit the post from long range.

    Slovakia, who missed out on the tournament in Russia, went ahead in the 59th minute when Jans Gregus rifled home a low shot from 25 metres.

    But substitute Kaabi headed Morocco level five minutes later and Belhanda turned the game around when he chested the ball down and fired home with a low shot from the edge of the area.

  • Press review: Morocco impresses in World Cup tuneup, beats Slovakia 2-1Morocco impresses in World Cup tuneup, beats Slovakia 2-1

    GENEVA (AP) — Morocco impressed again in its World Cup preparation, beating Slovakia 2-1 in a warmup game on Monday.

    After trailing to Slovakia's only shot on target, Morocco got goals midway through the second half from Ayoud Al Kaabi and Younes Belhanda.

    Al Kaabi stooped in the goalmouth to guide a 63rd-minute header into the net after a corner was deflected to the far post. The corner was earned from goalkeeper Michael Sulla's excellent save to push away a header by little midfielder Mbark Boussoufa.

    The winning goal in the 74th was a low bouncing shot struck by Younes Belhanda from the edge of the penalty area.

    Slovakia led in the 57th when midfielder Jan Gregus scored with a low shot.

    Morocco returned to Stade de Geneve from its Swiss Alps training camp four days after drawing with Ukraine 0-0 and showcasing its neat passing style.

    Morocco struck a post early against Slovakia when winger Hakim Ziyech fired a left-foot shot from distance.

    Coach Herve Renard's team opens its World Cup Group B campaign against Iran on June 15, then plays Portugal and Spain.

  • Press review: Morocco on beast mode as they defeat Slovakia 2-1

    An entertaining Morocco beats Slovakia 2-1 as Ayoub Kaabi and Younes Belhanda score the goals to give their nation this triumph.

    The Lions of the Atlas dominated the first half in every aspect, dazzling the audiences with displays of sheer beauty, yet left a lot of space in the back giving the Slovakian troops a chance to exploit their defense.

    Their two biggest chances came from long rang shots, the first was by Moubarak Boussoufa and was stopped by Michal Sulla and the other hit the bar by the team’s main man upfront, Hakim Ziyech.

    In the second half, FC Copenhagen’s Jan Gregus fired the first goal for Slovakia from outside the box and a few minutes later Ayoub Kaabi brought the game level, connecting his header with a corner cross.

    Amine Harit missed a clear-cut chance inside the box as his shot went very wide and his opportunity was followed by Manuel da Costa unleashing a screamer that was once again stopped by the shot stopper.

    Morocco continued to force their attack, until a deflected ball reached Younès Belhanda who received the ball on his chest and bagged a world class strike to give Morocco this victory.


  • Friendly: Morocco beat Slovakia 2-1, goals of Ayoub El Kaabi and Younes Belhanda

    See all goals of the match: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7X8XcRgCTQ

    Final Whistle!

    83' Youssef Ait Bennasser replaced Karim El Ahmadi

    75' Mehdi Carcela replaced Hakim Ziyech and Fayçal Fajr replaced Mbark Boussoufa

    74' Great goal of Belhanda and Morocco take the lead 2-1

    71' Belhanda shoots wide

    69' Great shot from Da Costa blocked by the goalkeeper and went above the woodwork

    65' Amine Harit shoots above the woodwork

    63' Ayoub El Kaabi levels up for Morocco 1-1, great header from El Kaabi and great assist from Ziyech (corner kick)

    63' Boussoufa's header blocked by the goalkeeper

    60' Ayoub El Kaabi replaced Khalid Boutaib

    58' Gregus opens the scoring for Slovakia from a powerful shot

    49' Ziyech shoots off target

    47' Belhanda shoots wide

    Second half underway!

    Amine Harit replaced Hamza Mendyl

    Half Time!

    Kick off: 18h00 GMT, 20h00 CET

    Competition: Friendly

    Morocco starting line up:

    1.Yassine Bounou.5.Mehdi Benatia (C).6.Romain Saiss.2.Achraf Hakimi.3.Hamza Mendyl.10.Younes Belhanda.14.Mbarek Boussoufa.8.Karim Al Ahmadi.16.Nourredine Amrabat.7.Hakim Ziyach.13.Khalid Boutaib.


    12.Monir Kajoui.22.Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti.4.Marouane Da Costa.11.Faycal Fajr.18.Amin Harit.21.Soufiane Amrabat.9.Ayoub El Kaabi.20.Aziz Bouhadouz.15.Youssef Ait Bennasser.17.Nabil Dirar.23.Mehdi Carcela.24.Walid Hajjam.19.Youssef Nsiry.

    Coach: Herve Renard

  • World Cup: Hervé Renard Reassures Fans about Nabil Dirar’s Injury

    By Morocco World News

    The national coach Hervé Renard reassured Moroccans Sunday about the injury of the right side Nabil Dirar. The international football player will be absent for the friendly match against Slovakia Monday in Geneva, just a few days before the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

    “Dirar had a small calf alert and there is no point in taking unnecessary risks. We are ten days away from the competition and we must not use his assets,” Renard said during a press briefing at the Geneva stadium.

    According to the French coach, “it’s just a precaution to be in possession of all our strength on the D-day…. It’s better to leave him a few days off, and not let him play tomorrow to make sure he can get back in shape pretty quickly.”

    In anticipation of their friendly against the Slovakian team, the Atlas Lions performed a training session of about sixty minutes Sunday afternoon. “The very concentrated group made the final adjustments before the Monday game,” it was reported to the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF).

    Mehdi Benatia’s teammates started their preparation for the World Cup with a draw against Ukraine (0-0). After the match against Slovakia, the national team will fly to Estonia where it will compete against the Estonian team on 9 June.

    Placed in Group B, the Atlas Lions will play their first game on June 15 in St. Petersburg against Iran. They will play their second group match against the Portuguese five days later on June 20 at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. The Lions will close their first-round experience on June 25 with a game against Spain in Kaliningrad.

  • WC 2018: Morocco announce final squad for World Cup

    (TheAtlasLions.com) Morocco coach Herve Renard has announced the final squad for the World Cup 2018 in Russia.

    Youssef En-Nesyri (Malaga) has made it to the final squad unlike Badr Benoun (Raja Casablanca) and Noussair Mazraoui (Ajax Amsterdam) whio were left out while Oualid El Hajjam will stay to train with the Atlas Lions.

    Here is the squad list:

    Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia, Spain), Yassine Bounou (Girona, Spain), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger);

    Defenders: Mehdi Benatia (Juventus, Italy), Romain Saiss (Wolverhampton Wanderers, England), Manuel Da Costa (Basaksehir, Turkey), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce, Turkey), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid, Spain), Hamza Mendyl (Lille, France);

    Midfielders: M'bark Boussoufa (Al Jazira, UAE), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord, Netherlands), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen, France), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord, Netherlands), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray, Turkey), Faycal Fajr (Getafe, Spain), Amine Harit (Schalke, Germany);

    Forwards: Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor, Turkey), Aziz Bouhaddouz (St. Pauli, Germany), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (Leganes, Spain), Mehdi Carcela (Standard de Liege, Belgium), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax, Netherlands), Youssef En-Nesyri (Malaga, Spain)

  • Transfers: Zouheir Laaroubi signs contract with Ohod Club

    Wydad Casablanca’s goalkeeper Zouheir Laaroubi officially joined Saudia Arabian outfit Ohod Club for one season after he declined an offer from the Moroccan club to renew his contract.

    The 33-year-old goalie decided not to continue his spell with WAC which started in July 2015 after he joined the Casablanca-based club coming from Difaa El Jadida. He made a total of 69 appearances with the team.

    Laaroubi decided not to renew his contract with the Moroccan side after he lost his spot in the starting line following the Moroccan derby against Raja Casablanca, as he took the blame for the Green Eagles’ equalizer.

    The deal, in which Laaroubi will join Ohod for one month, is reported to be worth $300,000.



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