Atlas Lions ready to roar: Morocco face tough task against the Ivory Coast to make it to Russia

A Rachid Aliou strike was enough for Morocco to send the Ivory Coast out of this year’s African Cup of Nations. The Atlas Lions will be hoping for a repeat today. (AFP)
Updated 12 November 2017
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Atlas Lions ready to roar: Morocco face tough task against the Ivory Coast to make it to Russia

DUBAI: Morocco assistant manager Mustapha Hadji insists World Cup qualification will mean just as much to the Atlas Lions’ foreign-born stars as it will to the players and fans based in the country.
Herve Renard’s side are just one game away from reaching a first World Cup since France ‘98; a draw against the Ivory Coast in Abidjan today will be enough to book a spot at next year’s finals in Russia. However, defeat will mean it is their opponents who will make it to the showpiece.
Renard has transformed the North Africans’ fortunes since taking the reins in February last year with the turnaround in no small part down to a legion of players with Moroccan heritage.
Of the 26-man squad selected for the Ivory Coast game just seven were born in Morocco, with only five currently playing in the country. There are 10 players born in France included, plus six from the Netherlands, two from Spain and one from Canada.
And though this raises some questions about diluting the identity of the side, assistant boss Hadji — himself a France Under-21 international before switching his allegiance to Morocco at senior level — believes the quality of the foreign-born players has been integral to the improvements on the pitch.

“I was probably the first player (who grew up in France) to choose Morocco and it comes down to what is in your heart,” Hadji told The Guardian this week. “It’s not about money or anything else – you play for your own country and represent all your family. I’m really happy with the choice I made and to be able to help the current generation.
“When you have players like them coming to play for their own country it makes a big difference. We have been able to mix together the best of the players from overseas and those who grew up in Morocco.”
Two of those Moroccan-both players, Ismail Haddad and Achraf Bencharki, head into the decisive qualifier on the crest of a wave — having helped Wydad Casablanca end their 25-year wait for a CAF Champions League crown last week.
But Bencharki is unlikely to start in Abidjan, with Khalid Boutaïb of Turkish side Yeni Malatyaspor generally favored up front so far during this campaign.
The trip to Ivory Coast represents the Atlas Lions’ biggest test yet under Renard. But there is plenty of reason for optimism. Morocco held The Elephants both home and away in 2014 World Cup qualifying and a repeat of the 1-1 draw in Abidjan four years ago would be enough to make the tournament this time.
More recently, Renard beat his former employers 1-0 at the 2017 African Nations Cup in January, the victory ultimately leading to Morocco reaching the quarter-finals while Ivory Coast went home early.
This time, though, the stakes are even higher. It is time for this talented group of players, with its patchwork of birthplaces, to put Moroccan football back on the world stage.


‘Man, I was so surprised’: Saudi Olympian Al-Muawi clinches bronze in Argentina games

The podium for the Athletics Mens 200m: Haruto Deguchi JPN (centre, Gold Medalist), Daniel Huller HUN (left, Silver Medalist) and Mohammed Duhaim M Almuawi KSA (right, Bronze Medalist) at the Athletics Field, Youth Olympic Park. The Youth Olympic Games, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday 16th October 2018. Photo: Ivo Gonzalez for OIS/IOC. (Handout image supplied by OIS/IOC)
Updated 17 October 2018
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‘Man, I was so surprised’: Saudi Olympian Al-Muawi clinches bronze in Argentina games

  • Al-Muawi has been racing hurdles for five years after picking it out as a sport he could excel in at the age of 12

BUENOS AIRES: With his bag packed and preparing to leave the Youth Olympic Park one last time on Tuesday night, Mohammed Al-Muawi was called back to the scene of the 400-metres Hurdles event, in which he had just finished fourth overall. With doping officials thronged at the entrance, he assumed he must have been randomly selected for testing. Instead, he got the news he will now never forget.

The 17-year-old Saudi is an Olympic bronze medallist.

“Man, I was so surprised to find out,” he told Arab News after being promoted onto the podium after South Africa’s Lindukhule Gora was disqualified. “It was my first competition and my first medal, so it’s amazing. This here means everything to me. When I finished the race, I was like ‘OK, fourth is OK’. I put my clothes back on and got ready to leave, but then they told me: ‘Come back, come back! You have a bronze medal!’ I was like, ‘What? How is that even possible?’”

Under a blistering sun and having led for much of the first 300m, Al-Muawi tired as the home straight loomed, crossing the finish-line fifth with a time of 53.05s. With Gora being disqualified for stepping out of his lane, however, Al-Muawi was immediately pushed up a place. Then, having bettered France’s Martin Fraysse’s time in the first-stage heat, it came down to the calculator.

Al-Muawi was 0.37s faster than Fraysse in the first heat, while Fraysse finished the second just 0.33s ahead. The result: the Asian Youth Championships silver-medallist posted a combined time of 1.45.81, making him the third quickest across a field of continental winners, beating Fraysse by just 0.04s.

“It's confusing for sure, but across the two heats, I was second and fourth, so I feel third is deserved," he said, looking down and caressing the bronze medal hanging from his neck. "It was a very strong field in the final. I started well, but the last 100m or so was very tiring and I was unable to really open my legs. It’s been an amazing experience though. Wow. I love the competition, the village, eating the different foods…it’s been unforgettable. And this just tops it all off.”

Al-Muawi splits his time between schooling in Bisha in the south of the Kingdom and training in Los Angeles, California, with World Championships silver-medallist Ryan Wilson. Saudi athletics delegation head, Saad Al-Asmari — himself a former 3000m Asian champion — expects this to be the start of more success not only for Al-Muawi but for Saudi athletics.

“Mohammed did very well,” said Al-Asmari. “He ran very well and it was only in the final 100 metres he had some problems. This result is very good for him and I’m very happy because he is only 17. Also, we have many other talents like this in Saudi Arabia. We have many athletes, but we need good coaching.

“Mohammed has been training since May in LA, which is where we send all our best athletes. When they come back, we always notice little differences: their body shape changes, their technique, endurance, everything.”

Al-Muawi has been racing hurdles for five years after picking it out as a sport he could excel in at the age of 12. He will head home to Bisha now to spend time with his family and continue his studies for two months before returning to LA to prepare for next year’s Asian Championships. The most important lesson he has learnt from Wilson in the United States is not physical, but rather psychological, he said.

“It’s has been a great experience for me over there so far,” he added, his English having improved considerably since his switch. “My coach there has shown support throughout, always telling me that I can do it. Always urging me to never give up. He tells me that before every competition I must tell myself: ‘I am hungry’. He tells me always that I’m a different breed too, so I guess I then begin to believe it — yes, I am a different breed."