Morocco’s renaissance continues with CHAN 2018

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Three years ago, Morocco ought to have been preparing to host the African Cup of Nations, but the country’s refusal to continue as organisers in light of the Ebola virus precipitated a downturn from which they are only now picking themselves up.

Equatorial Guinea duly stepped in as last-minute tournament organisers, while Morocco – as punishment by the Confederation of African Football – were slapped with an initial $1 million fine and banned from competing in the next two editions of the AFCON.

Fast forward to 2018, and the North African nation have enjoyed an eye-catching – and largely unforeseen – renaissance.

As they prepare to host their first significant football tournament in 30 years, they now enjoy a greater standing within the continental hierarchy than they did before their abdication as AFCON hosts.

The 2018 CHAN, the biennial tournament for national teams forged from home-based players, kicks off on Saturday, and Morocco will surely be hoping that by hosting this tournament successfully, they will complete their turnaround from their pariah state in 2015.

Propitiously, Morocco head into this tournament boasting both a senior national team bound for the 2018 World Cup and, in Wydad Casablanca, the reigning CAF Champions League holders and the nation’s first continental champions since 1999.

Both achievements are indicative of the nation’s continued return to prominence within the continental context.

The first, admittedly, is due partly to the Ivory Coast’s implosion under Michel Dussuyer and Marc Wilmots and their underperformance during qualifying for Russia. However, French coach Herve Renard also deserves major credit for forging together an excellent team that includes players from across Europe – including some at top clubs – and from the strong domestic league.

Arguably none of Africa’s full senior sides are as organised as the Atlas Lions, who didn’t concede a single goal during World Cup qualification, and were it not for an ominous group stage draw that pits them against Spain and Portugal, they’d be strong bets for a spot in the Last 16.

Wydad’s achievement in the Champions League – they overcame Egyptian giants Al-Ahly 2-1 over the two-legged final – saw them named as CAF’s Club Team of the Year, while they were unfortunate to fall to Mexico’s Pachuca in extra time of their Club World Cup quarter final.

They may be struggling in their title defence this term, but many of the squad that won a league and continental double last year will form the backbone of the Morocco side that are among the favourites for the CHAN title on home soil.

Victory would complete an almost relentlessly successful six months for Morocco’s sides internationally and in continental club competition.

Off the field, the North African nation are primed to play a key role in Ahmad Ahmad’s new CAF regime as the Malagasy administrator’s new executive committee settle into their new roles and begin to shape the continent’s footballing future.

The recent CAF awards in Accra – while not flawless – were an auspicious start, and Ahmad’s team will be desperate to oversee a successful CHAN.

That will mean, unlike recent AFCONs, that it’s a tournament exclusively remembered for its sporting spectacle, rather than as another microcosm of African ills.

The man in the middle will be Moroccan FA President Fouzi Lekjaa, one of Ahmad’s inner circle and, after being appointed as CAF’s third vice president, an increasingly influential figure within the continental game.

Lekjaa has been the driving force behind Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid – a shadow that will loom over CHAN logistics – and saw his stock rise after the North African nation hosted the CAF symposium in July, a rendezvous which prompted a change in Africa’s footballing calendar among other reforms.

Morocco may yet host the 2019 Nations Cup as doubts persist over Cameroon’s ability to organise a now-extended tournament.

If Morocco are competitive in their World Cup bid – even in failure – then Lekjaa’s own clamber up the political ladder will continue apace, and don’t be surprised if, many years from now, the 47-year-old emerges as a primary successor to Ahmad for the continent’s top job.

For now, he will be desperate for the African Nations Championship to represent another significant stepping stone in his rise and Morocco’s return to prominence.

Ed Dove is the Soccer Editor for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @EddyDove.

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