One of my followers on social media and Jay101.9 FM, the radio station where I head the Sports Desk, had sent me a private message on Facebook earlier today to enquire if Morocco’s exploit at the Fifa World Cup finals currently ongoing in Qatar was the first time an African nation was topping a World Cup Group and since I was online at the time I had to respond immediately.
It wasn’t the first time, as a matter of fact, the same nation Morocco, became the first African side to advance to the round of 16 of the world’s most spectacular single sporting showpiece, the Fifa World Cup but that was far back at the 1986 finals in Mexico.
I can’t forget “Mexico 86”, how can I, when I watched some of the best footballers ever in the history of the game doing their thing, a world cup that was magnified by the exuberance of arguably the greatest footballer that the world has ever seen in Argentine demigod, Diego Armando Maradona.
A world Cup that exhibited some of the best football matches ever with particular emphasis on three games that will remain evergreen in my memory, the France versus Brazil quarterfinal tie on the 21st of June 1986 in Guadalajara which France eventually won on penalty shootout after a highly entertaining but pulsating and neck-breaking 120 minutes of 1-1 draw, the Argentina versus England quarterfinal tie which Argentina won 2-1 on the 22nd of June 1986 in Mexico City with Maradona scoring two iconic goals and the round of 16 tie between Morocco and Western Germany on 17th June 1986 in Mexico City which West Germany luckily won following a Lothar Matthaus 89th-minute goal.
These are matches I wouldn’t forget in a hurry.
African Champions in 1976 at the games of the Africa Cup of nations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, ‘The Lions from the Atlas Mountains of Casablanca’, as the Moroccan senior national football team call themselves have shown once again their capacity to deliver at the global stage following their brilliant Group stage showing in Qatar where they once again topped a seemingly difficult group just like they had done in 1986.
But if the current team will be able to surpass the achievement of the set of 1986 is not a result anyone can predict now following the array of surprises we have seen in Qatar.
Secondly, group-stage football is quite different from the knockout stage, so at the knockout stage, anything can happen.
Handled by Brazilian national, Jose Farias, The Atlas Lions set of ‘Mexico 86’ were a combination of highly talented individual footballers.
As a matter of fact, every player in that Moroccan team was a star.
The team had two African Footballer of the year award winners in the fold, Mohammed Timoumi who was crowned African player of the year in 1985 for helping the Atlas Lions qualify for the 1986 World Cup finals and also helping his club, Royal Armed Forces of Morocco to win their first and to date only Caf Champions League title after they had beaten Sportive Dragon of the DRC in the final and goalkeeper Badou Zaki for his outstanding individual performance in goal for the Atlas Lions at both the Afcon finals in Egypt in 1986 even though Morocco finished in fourth place and in Mexico 86.
Other notable members of that team include Abdelrazzak Kairi, Merry Krimau, Mustapha Merry, Nouredine Bouyahyaoui, Mustapha El-Biyaz, Labid Khalifa, Lachen Ouadani, Azzedine Amanallah and the excessively talented Adoulazziz Boudabela amongst others.
They topped a very tight group that also had England, Portugal, and Poland and were always a delight to watch any day.
They got to the round of 16 and many believed they were only unlucky to have lost to the then West Germany.
Many will argue that football has evolved and there is no basis for comparison but we must always compare to ascertain if we are truly moving forward.
The Moroccan team of today may not have the biggest stars in the world compared to the 1986 set but one thing they have is their tenacious fighting spirit and togetherness which are the attributes of very dangerous teams.
Topping a group that had last World Cup silver and bronze medalists in Croatia and Belgium is a tremendous achievement by every sporting standard.
They will be taking on Spain in the round of 16 on Tuesday for a place in the quarterfinal and if they can surmount that hurdle, then we may begin to dream of a possible Africa’s first-ever semi-final place in the Fifa World Cup.
For me, Africa is perfectly on course and I think Morocco has the best prospect of going all the way.