TEAM PROFILE: Morocco’s Atlas Lions ready to roar and create shocks at World Cup

Maintaining their defensive solidity will be key to whether the side can make the knockout rounds.
Updated 14 June 2018
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TEAM PROFILE: Morocco’s Atlas Lions ready to roar and create shocks at World Cup

  • Atlas lions are at their first World Cup for 20 years.
  • Placed in a tough group including Spain and Portugal, there is hope they can get to second round.

The side may not be as heralded as Egypt, and they may have been placed in the tough group containing Spain, Portugal and Iran, but of all the Arab sides it is perhaps Morocco who have the best chance of making a statement in Russia.

HOW THEY GOT THERE

Placed in a group with Ivory Coast, a side that had qualified for the past three World Cups, meant it was never going to be an easy group to escape from. But the Atlas Lions roared and made it to Russia without losing a match. Three wins and three draws meant they easily qualified and did so with some style securing their pace with a 2-0 win away in Ivory Coast.

MANAGER

Morocco were without a World Cup appearance in nearly 20 years and in the doldrums when Herve Renard turned up. But since he took his place in the dugout in early 2016 the fortunes of the Atlas Lions have taken a turn for the better. The Frenchman made the side more solid, and very tough to beat, as their current run of 18 games unbeaten illustrates. That run includes matches against fellow World Cup hopefuls Serbia, Nigeria, South Korea and Egypt. Only Belgium (19) and Spain (20) have a better record going into the tournament.

TACTICS

Renard is likely to go with a 4-2-3-1 formation, switching from 4-4-2 in defensive phases to 4-3-3 in attack. It is highly flexible and plays to the side’s strengths as well as the manager’s safety-first approach. There is a steel to the side. They may have been thrown into a tough group — European heavyweights Spain and Portugal, with the opener against Iran — but they still should not be dismissed as likely second-round participants. The team is packed full of experienced players, including the Dutch-born quintet of Mbark Boussoufa‚ Karim El Ahmadi‚ Hakim Ziyech and the Amrabat brothers – Nordin and Sofyan – who are all likely to feature heavily in the side. With the likes of Juventus’ Medhi Benatia and Real Madrid’s Achraf Hakimi also likely to start and it is clear that there is class to add to the experience and steel.

KEY MAN
Defensive solidity has never really been a problem for Morocco under Renard, so the big factor likely to determine if they can shock either Spain or Portugal is whether they can marry that safety-first approach with the ability to turn their counterattacks into goals. They will likely play with just one up front for long periods and the man tasked with finding the back of the net is Khalid Boutaib. He hit a hat-trick against Gabon in qualifying, and while opposition defenses in Russia will provide a much sterner test, the 31-year-old is determined to make his late start to international football (he only has 20 caps) count.

WORLD CUP HISTORY

This is the fifth time the Atlas Lions have made it to the World Cup, their best performance coming in 1986 when they got out of a group including England, Portugal and Poland to make it to the second round.
Their last appearance came 20 years ago, when even an impressive 3-0 win over Scotland and draw with Norway was not enough to see them make it to the knockout stages.

STRENGTHS

Only conceded one goal in qualifying and the defense will again be key to whether they can shock in Russia. If they can maintain that solidity then anything is possible. Victory against Iran on Friday is viewed as a must.

WEAKNESSES

It is hard to see how they are going to trouble oppositions defenses enough to put rivals on the back foot.


KSA’s martial arts heroine: ‘I got into kickboxing by coincidence, as I just wanted to join a gym’

Updated 19 March 2019
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KSA’s martial arts heroine: ‘I got into kickboxing by coincidence, as I just wanted to join a gym’

  • Young Saudi triumphant at Open International Tournament despite just two years of training
  • Zahra Al-Qurashi took the gold in the women’s 70 kg category, beating Jordanian Heba Wasfi

JEDDAH: Zahra Al-Qurashi never expected to be where she is today: A gold medal winner in full contact kickboxing at the Open International Tournament for Clubs aged just 21. What started out as a gym class two years ago soon turned into a passion, leading to her victory in Amman on Sunday.

“I got into kickboxing by coincidence, as I just wanted to join a gym. I found the class and gave it a try, and decided to keep attending the classes,” she said. “A year ago, I joined Flagboxing Gym, and started training with my coach Grethe (Kraugerud). With her help, I developed my style and I am improving every day.”

Full contact is a discipline of kickboxing where punches and kicks must be delivered to legal areas of the body. According to the World Association for Kickboxing Organizations’ rules, it is legal to attack the front of the head and front and side of the torso, using “ankle-level foot sweeps.” It is prohibited to attack the throat, lower abdomen, back, legs, joints, back of the head and top of the shoulders.

A medal at her first international competition, then, speaks volumes about Al-Qurashi’s tenacity. She took the gold in the women’s 70 kg category, beating Jordanian Heba Wasfi.

“As soon as I entered the ring, everything went blank, I couldn’t hear or see anyone but my opponent, so I don’t really recall hearing my name even,” said Al-Qurashi. “I got a couple of really good kicks and punches, but she was a good opponent. I was in my own zone though, following every move and made sure I didn’t make mistakes.”

Zahra Al-Quraishi, 21, is already a gold medal winner at an international event despite being a virtual rookie in the demanding sport of kickboxing. (Supplied photos)

Hala Al-Hamrani, the owner of Flagboxing Gym in Jeddah, said: “I am over the moon. I have dreamt about this happening for 16 years, ever since I started coaching. My goal was to eventually provide the ladies of this country with an opportunity to compete.”

For approximately two months, Kraugerud, from Norway, oversaw Al-Qurashi’s workouts, adding more sparring, interval training and intense ring practice.

“I’ve had Zahra spar with men, who are bigger and stronger than her, to give her a sense of what to expect in the ring, to give her more confidence and make her mentally prepared,” said Kraugerud. “I was very proud of her as she entered the ring, you could see the respect for the sport reflected in her. We did a really good job at Flag, we really pushed for this together as a team. She’s young, but she’s talented and she will go far.”

Al-Hamrani, a member of the Saudi Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Federation, added: “We got her ready by providing her with the right practice and training. It’s a dream come true and it’s very overwhelming because it was such a long process for something like this to happen. Zahra is an up-and-coming athlete who hopefully has a long future and I’m extremely excited to see what that future holds.”

Abdul Aziz Julaidan, chairman of the Saudi MMA Federation, hailed the result after a tough bout between the two competitors, and thanked Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, chairman of the General Sport Authority, for the support he had given to the team.

Upon returning to her hometown of Jeddah, Al-Qurashi was greeted by her mother. “I was hugging her and crying and mom, being mom, asked if I was crying because I got hit,” she laughed. “That was her way of saying: I’m proud of you.”