Morocco's exit from the World Cup reveals football's cruelty
Morocco has suffered this week. The Atlas Lions lost World Cup bids both present and future.
First, FIFA announced the combined effort from CONCACAF, involving Canada, Mexico and the United States had been awarded 2026 World Cup hosting privileges. Morocco had been the other candidate.
Then, the team lost a pair of one-goal games to be eliminated from the ongoing tournament. They failed to score a goal unless you count Aziz Bouhaddouz's inattentive header into his own net at the death against Iran that gifted Team Melli three points.
Morocco's CAF qualifying campaign was sensational. Herve Renard's squad did not concede a goal in their six games against Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and Gabon. Coming into the finals, they were the top-rated African side. Minnows? More like dark horses.
The draw wasn't a friend, however. Matched with 2010 world champions Spain, defending European champions Portugal and top Asian qualifier Iran, Group B was no picnic in Gorky Park.
When the 23-man squad was released, Sofiane Boufal was left out due to his poor form with Southampton. Many fans moaned he was better than many on the squad regardless of his Premier League form.
Without Boufal, the Atlas Lions still had talent. Mehdi Benatia had a great debut season with Juventus, coming over from Bayern to help the Old Lady win a seventh consecutive Scudetto. Youngster Achraf Hakimi impressed in his breakthrough season, ably standing in for the injured Dani Carvajal during the season's first half. Expectations were high for Khalid Boutaib after he scored four of Morocco's eleven goals in qualifying.
In the opener against Iran, Morocco was the more positive side, but too many chances went wanting. Then Bouhaddouz's header did them in. Iran had scrambled to buy their own boots after Nike reneged on its sponsorship deal, citing American economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic, but the Moroccans left their shooting boots at home, too.
Versus Portugal at Luzhniki Stadium, they conceded in the opening minutes courtesy Cristiano Ronaldo's bullet header. From that point, the Atlas Lions edged every statistical category: possession, shots, shots on target, corners, even fouls. But there was no end product.
Herve Renard should have played a free-flowing striker-less formation. Boutaib was completely ineffective. Benatia and Ziyech had several clear-cut chances but neither took any.
The manager summed it up eloquently.
"Portugal had nothing but Cristiano Ronaldo. Morocco had everything but Cristiano Ronaldo."
Despite outclassing Iran and taking it to Portugal, Morocco are out. In a tournament like this, every team needs luck. The Atlas Lions had none.
Morocco will now face the Spaniards in their final group stage game on Monday. Renard sent out a skilled disciplined team, arguably the best of those eliminated thus far and, pending Argentina's fate, maybe in the entire group stage. Spain aren't yet through, level with the Portuguese on four points, only one ahead of Iran. Can Morocco gain some redemption by playing spoilers?
In any event, their next task is to compete as well in the coming African Cup of Nations.