Seven weeks on from their national team’s historic progress to a World Cup semi-final, Morocco’s status in football’s global hierarchy remains high. Its stars were yesterday animating the closing hours of the European transfer window, Hakim Ziyech chased by Paris Saint-Germain, Sofyan Amrabat by Barcelona. As of Wednesday morning, local excellence takes centre stage.
The 2022 Fifa Club World Cup, an event pushed into the new year by a disrupted calendar, begins in Tangier, one of the two host cities hoping that a tournament following so quickly after a seminal World Cup for the Mena region catches some of the momentum. The Middle East and North Africa will be well represented, as should the region’s gains from Qatar 2022.
Still vivid in the memory are the landmark results from November and December, such as Tunisia’s victory over defending champions France. That was a personal highlight in the long career of Tunisian full-back Ali Maaloul, who embarks on his third Club World Cup campaign with Egypt’s Al Ahly, who have collected bronze medals at the last two tournaments.
When Wydad Athletic of Casablanca enter the staggered competition in the second round, they may still have hold of their full trio of Atlas Lions World Cup heroes.
Left-back Attiyat Allah, admired by a number of European clubs, supplied the inch-perfect looping cross for the goal that beat Portugal in the quarter-final; Yahya Jabrane helped close out Morocco’s 1-0 advantage in the final moments of that contest.
Wydad goalkeeper Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti was also in Morocco’s squad, managed expertly by Walid Regragui, who guided the club to a Caf Champions League and domestic league double months before taking over the national team and overseeing their triumphs against Belgium, Spain and the Portuguese.
“It is fantastic for Morocco after the World Cup we experienced for people to now see the football, the fans and the stadiums we have here,” said Regragui. “And home advantage should help Wydad.”
Wydad’s path to a possible semi-final against Brazil’s Flamengo is barred by Al Hilal, reigning Asian club champions pending the completion of the 2022 edition of the AFC Champions League.
Al Hilal’s footballers have contributed more to the native esteem of the game in Saudi Arabia than either Cristiano Ronaldo joining its league or its stadiums hosting events such as the Spanish Super Cup or Paris Saint-Germain’s visiting for an All-Star friendly.
Nine of them took part in Saudi Arabia’s stunning 2-1 group phase win over eventual champions Argentina in Lusail, including the goalscorers that day, Saleh Al Shehri and Salem Al Dawsari and most of the skilfully organised defensive unit who dared Lionel Messi and company to take on their high line.
All those fresh back stories hint at a potentially more open Club World Cup than usual. It has two African heavyweights, Al Ahly qualifying thanks to having finished runners-up in the last Caf Champions League because that competition’s winners, Wydad, now coached by the Tunisian Mehdi Nafti, take the host-club berth as Moroccan league winners.
The North American and Caribbean region is, in a break with tradition, represented by the MLS, Seattle Sounders having interrupted Mexican clubs’ long domination of the Concacaf Champions League title.
The most distant travellers are New Zealand’s Auckland City, Oceania champions and enthused by their return to Morocco, where, in the Club World Cup of 2014 they collected a surprise bronze, beating Mexico’s Cruz Azul on penalties in the third-place play-off.
The last ten editions have been won by the European champion, and it would be bold to forecast a winner other than Real Madrid. Yet their fixture schedule – with the trip to Morocco squeezed in between assignments in Saudi Arabia for the Spanish Super Cup, which they lost to Barcelona; imminent confrontations with Barca in the Spanish Cup; a catch-up chase to retain their Liga title and a meeting with Liverpool in the Champions League – is sapping. Points have been dropped lately by Carlo Ancelotti’s side.
Flamengo, South American champions, are in erratic new-year form too and getting used to a new manager, Vitor Pereira. He will usher his players, including the veteran former Chelsea, PSG and Arsenal defender David Luiz, on to their flight to Morocco for next week’s semi-final still vexed at having conceded the lead and lost 4-3 in the Brazilian Super Cup against Palmeiras at the weekend.
Al Ahly, who meet Auckland this evening for the right to then play Seattle Sounders, are under a relatively new coach, their third within 12 months. But Marcel Koller, a former manager of the Austria national team, is unbeaten in 20 games in charge and fresh from a 3-0 derby victory over Zamalek. Koller is expected, at the very least, to match Al Ahly’s last two yields from the Club World Cup – which means coming back to Cairo with a medal.
Updated: February 01, 2023, 3:12 AM