They were set a brutal schedule of four matches within 11 days. The team from Casablanca made the task still harder by letting one of those fixtures drag into extra-time. Holding a lead would become a perpetual problem, but, thankfully, they had the stamina to again and again regain the advantage and spring another surprise.
Those are the bare bones of one of the least expected runs to the final of a Fifa Club World Cup, the tournament sometimes derided from within football’s traditional power base, Europe, because it so consistently crowns a European superclub at the end of what is supposed to be a showcase for excellence across football’s continents. A pattern is entrenched: gold medals will be handed out to the European Cup holders and, mostly, silvers to a club from the Americas.
But a few clubs have gone off script. There was Al Ain, who conquered River Plate in the semi-final in 2018 and but were beaten by Real Madrid in the final. And there was Raja Casablanca five years earlier in Morocco. They entered the competition only via their host status, took on the compacted schedule and, feeding off home support, kept overcoming predictions.
Raja’s run to eventual defeat in the final against Bayern Munich left Ronaldinho, scorer of an exquisite free-kick to equalise against them for Atletico Mineiro, reeling in their wake. It withstood a comeback from the Mexican heavyweights of Monterrey.
Now that the Club World Cup is back in Morocco after a nine year absence, Raja Casablanca’s spirited achievement is being relived. It also sets a bar for the Moroccan candidate this time, Raja’s city rivals Wydad Athletic, or WAC as they are known. As does the more recent, historic achievement of the national team in Qatar in making the semi-finals of the World Cup, an all-time high for Africa and for any team from the Mena region.
WAC on Saturday meet Al Hilal of Riyadh, the 2021 Asian champions, at a sold-out Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium in Rabat for the right to play Flamengo of Brazil in next week’s semi-final and to continue to fly the flag for Morocco’s standout year – a 12 months in which WAC claimed the African Champions League, the Atlas Lions made history, and Berkane won the CAF Confederation Cup, Africa’s secondary competition.
WAC have not had an ideal lead-up, clouded by last minute uncertainty over the immediate future of Yahia Attiyat Allah, the dashing left-back, at the closing of the international transfer window.
On the back of his World Cup performances, he was courted by European clubs, and a possible transfer to France’s Montpellier broke down only on Tuesday.
WAC’s defence of their domestic league table is a little off the pace, too, and poor form led to the appointment of a new manager, the Tunisian Mehdi Nafti, last month. He is the second man trying to fill the large gap left last summer by Walid Regragui, who guided WAC to their double and then, at short notice, expertly steered the national team to the last four of the World Cup.
“We’ve been working on our shortcomings,” said Nafti, acknowledging that during last weekend’s goalless league draw with FUS Rabat, WAC “did not create enough”. They have three goals from their last five outings. “The positive is that we’ve been defending well, which gives us a good basis against Al Hilal,” he added of the six successive clean sheets he has overseen.
He is optimistic that, with strong home support, WAC can emulate Raja’s run to the final of almost a decade ago. “We go into every competition believing we can win it,” said Nafti. “It’s going to take hard work, but we known what we’re up against and what success will mean for us.”
On Saturday evening in Tangier, Al Ahly take on Seattle Sounders, the CONCACAF club champions, for a berth in the other semi-final. The Egyptians have wind in their sails thanks to a thumping 3-0 victory to eliminate Auckland City in Wednesday’s first round.
Should Al Ahly, sharp on the counter-attack against Auckland, go to beat the MLS side, they would face Real Madrid next Wednesday, alert for symptoms of fatigue in the European champions, whose coach Carlo Ancelotti has complained about the heavy fixture schedule facing Madrid.
The Spanish giants have been in action in every midweek and weekend since the short post-World Cup break. “It doesn’t stop,” said Ancelotti. “La Liga want their part, Uefa theirs, the Spanish Federation theirs and Fifa their bit. It doesn’t give us any days off. We like playing in every competition, the players like it, but the calendar is being pushed beyond its limits.”