Morocco are favourites to win Afcon – can they repeat World Cup heroics?

Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters

Morocco are heading to the Africa Cup of Nations with unprecedented expectation resting on their shoulders. The tournament, initially due to take place last summer but postponed by the Confederation of African Football (Caf) because of the rainy season in the host country, Ivory Coast, will be marked by the Atlas Lions trying to follow up a historic World Cup and add to a legacy that has eclipsed any other African nation.

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Drawn in Group F along with Tanzania, DR Congo and Zambia, Morocco are heavy favourites for the tournament. In Qatar, they became the first African country to make the competition’s semi-finals, topping a group containing Belgium, Croatia and Canada before eliminating Spain and Portugal to reach the last four.

In contrast Morocco have lifted one Afcon trophy, in 1976, in 19 appearances. A disappointing haul given that the country has the best footballing infrastructure on the continent, funded by King Mohammed VI. Unlike many of their African counterparts, the federation is well run and they boast an abundance of talents who play club football at the highest level in Europe. One final and two semi-final appearances in almost five decades are a poor return for a country often tipped as one of the favourites. In recent Afcon editions, worse teams with far fewer resources have gone on to triumph.

Now the Atlas Lions are not just one of the favourites, but the overwhelming favourite. The team set incredibly high standards in Qatar but will have to grapple with changing the way they play on the pitch, and their mindset off it, when they kick off their tournament at the Laurent Pokou Stadium in San-Pédro.

Since the World Cup, Morocco have struggled. They secured a huge 2-1 victory against Brazil, but a loss against South Africa and draws against Peru, Cape Verde and Ivory Coast highlighted just how much they will have to change how they play. In response to his side’s form, the Morocco manager, Walid Regragui, said: “We’re playing against the world’s top players. I, too, could go and play against teams 50th or 60th in the Fifa rankings and then say that we have been undefeated for however many matches.”

He was seemingly having a dig at Algeria and their 35-match unbeaten run that ended at the 2021 Afcon. It was a strange comment given Morocco have also mostly played sides below 50th in the rankings, including 153rd-placed Liberia.

Maybe his critics have a point. In Qatar, Morocco were highly disciplined and defensively organised. In goal, Bono took care of the rare chances that passed the back four of Achraf Hakimi, Nayef Aguerd, Romain Saïss and Noussair Mazraoui. Sofyan Amrabat was Morocco’s industrious base, but simultaneously proved he was so much more than the average destroyer with his passing and progressive runs. Azzedine Ounahi was instrumental in moving the ball up the pitch and his speed, technicality and decision-making were crucial in keeping possession and executing Regragui’s tactic of using the other team’s willingness to attack in order to find spaces to exploit.

None of that has changed for Morocco. They still very rarely concede and can carve open their opponent’s midfield. It is up front they have concerns. Hakim Ziyech was in stunning form at the World Cup, but 13 months on the 30-year-old is struggling to maintain fitness at Galatasaray, having missed 13 games this season with a foot injury and a hamstring problem.

Similarly, Sofiane Boufal has only played five matches this season after picking up an unknown injury that kept him out of action with the Qatari side Al-Rayyan for more than 100 days. He last played 90 minutes in August.

Then there is the beloved Youssef En-Nesyri. In Qatar, his only goal in the knockout stage, a magnificent header against Portugal, booked his team’s place in the semis. However, throughout his career he has been criticised for his patchy form and he seems to be in one of those slumps. The forward has not scored for the national team since the World Cup and has five league goals for Sevilla this season.

It would be premature to say Morocco have been found out, but they are finding it difficult to adjust from going toe-to-toe with the world’s heavy hitters, who afforded them space, to facing sides that look to bring them down to their level, frustrate them physically and then grind out a result. That is how Morocco have been eliminated at their past three Afcons, crumbling in crucial moments against sides they should have beaten: a 2-1 loss against Egypt in extra time in 2022, a 4-1 penalty shootout loss against Benin in 2019 and a 1-0 defeat to Egypt in 2017.

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It does not help that Regragui has wavered over the team’s expectations. On the back of the World Cup, he said Morocco had to win the continental trophy to cement their legacy. Less than a year later, he did a full 180, suggesting hope of progressing beyond the group stage must be tempered. “It will be very difficult for us to win the Afcon,” he said. “We will not be favourites. The last time we made a semi-final I think I was a player. I had hair.”

Recently, he has shifted back to accepting being favourites and hoping the players take it in their stride. “Being underdogs at the World Cup and a favourite at Afcon is an asset. We have acquired a new status not only in Africa but also at the global level, with a place in the top 15 [in the Fifa rankings]. Players have to adapt to this new status. It is always nice to be a team that is feared.”

In Qatar, Morocco were exciting outsiders, a team representing an entire continent and a region of the world that is often diminished, in football or otherwise. They now find themselves among rivals who envy them and will stop at nothing to take their place. It is up to them to show whether the pressure of building on their World Cup success will propel them onward or prove detrimental. Morocco’s footballing legacy depends on it.


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