Walid Regragui, inspirational head coach of the Morocco team who raised the bar for Arab and African football at last December’s World Cup, has a clear view of how quickly football hierarchies are changing in his region.
The eye-catching recruitment by clubs in Saudi Arabia, whose acquisitions include leading Moroccan players, has elevated the Pro League to a status higher than that of some of Europe’s major domestic competitions, says Regragui. As he assembled his players for international duty and the next step in consolidating Morocco’s status as pathfinders for Mena football, he noted how many of them are benefiting individually from having shone on a global stage in Qatar.
During the two transfer windows since Morocco knocked out Spain, Portugal and effectively Belgium on the way to reaching a World Cup semi-final, an unprecedented landmark for an African country, club football’s superpowers have tracked the stars of that month assiduously. And if their efforts to graft a piece of the Atlas Lions’ punch into their plans were stymied in January, the summer window delivered.
Sofyan Amrabat, whose authority at the base of Regragui’s midfield was key to Morocco’s success, last week joined Manchester United from Fiorentina. The deal is a loan, initially, but United have managed to achieve what Barcelona, among several suitors who tried to lure Amrabat in January, could not.
Hakim Ziyech, at the creative heart of the World Cup adventure, will be playing in the Uefa Champions League this season, a possibility ruled out for him had he remained at Chelsea. In the last winter transfer window, Ziyech had a move to Paris Saint-Germain all but agreed, but bureaucratic issues prevented it. In July, he left Chelsea for Turkish champions Galatasaray, who will meet United in the Champions League next month.
Before Regragui took charge of Morocco a year ago, Ziyech had turned his back on the national team because of a falling out with Vahid Halilhodzic, the previous head coach. The closer relationship with Regragui was in evidence again when, sensitive to the winger’s move from London to Istanbul, the Morocco coach rested him for this week’s internationals against Liberia – a qualifier for next year’s Afcon – Burkina Faso. Regragui explained that his absence was merely to allow Ziyech some practice time as he settles into a new club. Morocco have already qualified for Afcon, and Ziyech will be back. “I will be counting on him in games to come,” said Regragui.
When the latest squad was named, Amrabat was still finalising his transfer to United, where he will link up with Erik ten Hag, the manager he worked with during a spell at Utrecht seven years ago. The midfielder was then a 20-year-old admired for his versatility across positions and his industry. He joins United as a specialist, earmarked to share central midfield responsibilities with Casemiro, and eager to shift up a level. “I’ve had to be patient for this moment,” Amrabat said on completing the move to Old Trafford.
He is one of many upgrading their club trajectories. Midfielder Azzedine Ounahi, a revelation at the World Cup, left Angers, the French club battling in vain against relegation, for Olympique Marseille in January. Striker Walid Cheddira, who had spent his entire senior career in Italy but outside the top flight until last month, is now the property of Serie A champions, Napoli, who signed him from Bari. Cheddira, 25, has begun the season on loan at Frosinone, but that still means Serie A football.
Selim Amallah, the attacking midfielder, has exchanged second-tier football in Spain, where his former club Real Valladolid were relegated in June – Amallah’s absence with injury coincided with their late-season plunge down the table – for top flight action with Valencia.
The late August transfer of winger Abde Ezzaouli, captain of the Morocco under-23 team who won the African title in June, from Barcelona to Real Betis may look like a demotion, but is, rather, a platform. Abde is 21 and guaranteed more La Liga minutes at Betis than in the current Barca set up. And Barcelona insisted on a buy-back option when agreeing his sale.
Yassine ‘Bono’ Bounou, outstanding in goal for the Atlas Lions in Qatar, has joined Al Hilal from Sevilla, swapping the club where he won two Europa League titles for the current leaders of the Pro League. A step up? Or down? Sevilla sit bottom of La Liga and, according to Regragrui’s evaluation, the Pro League is at least on a par for competitive standards with all but the top five or six leagues in Europe.
“The league in Saudi Arabia is better than Belgium’s or the Netherlands’,” reckons Regragui. “That has to be respected. As long as our players are competing to a high standard there, they will be considered for selection – just as Neymar, N’Golo Kante and Marcelo Brozovic are.”
That trio moved to Saudi Arabia this summer. The head coaches of Brazil, France and Croatia respectively continue to regard Neymar, Kante and Brozovic as current internationals when fit and available.