Morocco back down to earth with crash after latest Africa Cup of Nations failure

World Cup semi-finalists fell to shock defeat against South Africa in what was disappointing tournament for Maghreb sides

Morocco manager Walid Regragui consoles Achraf Hakimi after their Africa Cup of Nations defeat against South Africa at the Stade Laurent Pokou, in San Pedro, on January 30, 2024. AFP
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Morocco, far from alone at being ousted far sooner than expected from the Africa Cup of Nations, made many millions of friends in Ivory Coast. But that was chiefly because of an unintended favour.

By beating Zambia in their final group match, Morocco ensured a flawed Ivory Coast team squeaked into the knockouts at Zambia’s expense, as the best of the third-placed teams in the last chance saloon.

Ivorian gratitude continues, noisily, now that the hosts have eliminated champions Senegal and no longer see Morocco along any possible path to an unlikely title. Africa’s No 1 ranked team are out. “It’s been a tournament with a lot of surprises,” said Morocco’s manager Walid Regragui after his team’s shock 2-0 defeat to South Africa in San Pedro.

South Africa concentrated their giant-killing into 90 carefully prepared minutes, and into the efficient execution of two of the few goalscoring chances they created. “Congratulations to them,” said Regragui, “they played the sort of game you need to play to beat us.”

Regragui, the master planner who 13 months ago was bringing his players home to huge cheering crowds as World Cup semi-finalists, spoke with dignified composure, taking full responsibility for the exit.

He has not always been so self-possessed during the last three weeks. Regragui was on the touchline on Tuesday night only because a ban, imposed by CAF, the body in charge of Afcon, for his angry match day one confrontation with DR Congo captain Chancel Mbemba, had been reduced on appeal.

Morocco have made enemies as well as gaining the friendship of indebted Ivorian fans. When Tanzania’s head coach, the Algerian Adel Amrouche, said out loud that Morocco’s strong influence with Caf extends to “choosing their referees”, he lost his job and landed a fine and a ban.

If the accusation had no verifiable substance to it whatsoever, he was skirting around a general theme: a perception Morocco stride around the continent’s football landscape with an entitled bearing.

Their football has certainly earned it. The World Cup run, with Belgium, Spain and Portugal all defeated, set a new bar for African and Arab achievement. The national women’s team were similar pathfinders at their World Cup last year, reaching the knockout phase.

CAF are obliged to recognise the beneficial impact globally of Morocco, hosts-elect of the next Afcon, co-hosts of the 2030 World Cup, site of some of the continent’s best stadiums and, in the Mohammed VI Academy, one of its best-appointed talent nurseries.

Three of its graduates, Nayef Aguerd, of the English Premier League’s West Ham United, Azzedine Ounahi, of Ligue 1 Marseille and Youssef En-Neysri, of Europa League experts Sevilla, were among the Atlas Lions tamed by a crafty South African side built largely around players employed in Africa.

If Aguerd won several of his duels with South Africa’s rangy centre-forward Evidence Makgopa, he came out second best to Themba Zwane in the lead-up to Makgoba’s opening goal.

En-Nesyri, a hero of Qatar 2022, was a blunt weapon up front and while Achraf Hakimi threatened South Africa’s left flank, the outcome slipped beyond Morocco’s reach when, at 1-0 down and with 85 minutes on the clock, the Paris Saint-Germain star struck a penalty against the crossbar.

“The penalty came at a key moment for us,” said Regragui. “Missing it, I think, put doubts in the players’ minds.”

Regragui assumed “all the responsibility” for the upset, although he was missing key allies, notably the injured Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal.

Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui, returning from significant lay-off to the left-back position that is not his natural one but which Regragui has mostly made work for the player and the team, had a difficult night. And Morocco, so often at their best conceding possession, were outthought by a South Africa content to play on the counter-attack, to contain and tire Regragui’s men.

The retreat is not terminal. Morocco will stage the next Afcon sensing that, if some of the totems of Regragui’s era-defining team may not be there – captain Romain Saiss is 36 – “young players have come in and we expect better things ahead from them.” Amine Adli and Abde Ezzalzouli, 23 and 22, are not like-for-like successors to Boufal and Ziyech, but they give Morocco zest on the wings.

Nor is it so isolating being an ejected favourite at this tournament. Morocco join the great caravan heading north from a disastrous Afcon for the Mena nations.

Tunisia, who beat France at the 2022 World Cup, lost to Namibia and finished bottom of their group. Algeria, the 2019 champions, lost to Mauritania, the one Maghreb contestant who can claim a successful Afcon expedition, and left after three winless games. Egypt’s defensive nous deserted them as damagingly as Mohamed Salah’s fitness did.

“It’s been a tough tournament for everybody,” said Regragui, whose own presence, with the country whose football he elevated higher than any coach ever has, at the next, home Afcon is uncertain.

He set the bar at this one at the semi-finals. Falling so far short may yet persuade him he is no longer the best guide for a squad brought suddenly down to earth.

Updated: January 31, 2024, 2:18 PM