LONDON: When Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia all won their 2021 AFCON qualifiers last November to finish 2019 on a high, none of their players could have imagined that they would have to wait 11 months to put on their shirts again.
That wait finally ends on Friday as the North African trio return to the pitch in a series of eagerly-awaited friendlies that will serve as warm-ups for the resumption of qualification in November.
Morocco take on Senegal and, four days later, DR Congo in Rabat, although preparations for coach Vahid Halilhodzic have not been free from the effects of coronavirus. Ajax stopped Noussair Mazraoui and Zakaria Labyad from joining up with The Atlas Lions due to the fact they would be subject to a 14-day quarantine on their return to Amsterdam.
There is better news in that the Bosnian coach, who took Algeria to the second round at the 2014 World Cup, has taken advantage of a change in FIFA regulations to call up Munir El-Haddadi despite the fact that the Sevilla forward has played competitively for Spain. In September, the world governing body ruled that players can switch national teams if they have played no more than three senior appearances by the time they are 21.
“I have been talking to Munir for the last six months and he has spoken of his desire is to play for Morocco,” Halilhodzic, who has also summoned German-born Aymen Barkok, said.
“I have profited from this lockdown period to observe, analyse and know the players I need. They are here because they are attached to their country of origin. It is their decision without any pressure. They are Moroccans like all the other Moroccans.”
“They are serious and they want to be here and achieve something for their country.”
According to Halilhodzic, that is not the case for Abderrazak Hamdallah. The former Lille, Nantes, PSG and Rennes coach told reporters that the in-form striker, who has been banging in the goals for Saudi Arabian champions Al-Hilal and announced his retirement from international football in 2019, does not yet want to return to the national team.
“It is he who refuses to come and play,” said Halilhodzic. “We don’t play around with the national jersey, it’s sacred. Playing for your national team is a source of pride, it is not owned by anyone, neither Hamdallah nor Vahid Halilhodzic. It belongs to all Moroccans.”
The new players will join up with stars such as Hakim Ziyech of Chelsea and Achraf Hakimi of Inter Milan. A knee Injury has interrupted the start to Ziyech’s English Premier League career and the winger has been training with a bandage. Halilhodzic hopes that he will be able to play 45 minutes.
Morocco sits on top of Group E of qualification for the 2021 continental tournament with four points from two games and face twin clashes against the Central African Republic next month.
Tunisia have six points from the opening two games and can clinch their place in the tournament with two wins over Tanzania in November. The Carthage Eagles are warming up with games against Sudan just outside the capital Tunis on Friday and then head to Austria to take on Nigeria four days later.
Since Mondher Kebaier replaced Alain Giresse as head coach in August 2019, Tunisia have won five of their seven games, losing only to Ivory Coast and drawing with Cameroon.
“Our strength lies in our team spirit,” said Kebaier. “That was apparent in our last game in the AFCON qualifiers. Despite a hand injury, Wahbi Khazri continued to play and was the one who finally scored. The same can be said about Youssef Msakni, who played although he was ill and receiving medical treatment. It’s this spirit that will make the difference in the upcoming games.”
Algeria also have two wins out of two and the African champions will secure their spot in the 2021 tournament by taking six points from Zimbabwe in November. The Fennecs warm-up with tough tests against Nigeria and Mexico which will take place in Austria and the Netherlands.
Riyad Mahrez is expected to lead Algeria against Nigeria with the 2019 African Cup of Nations semi-final between the two still fresh in the memory when the Manchester City star broke Nigerian hearts with a last-gasp free-kick.
“That is in the past,” said Mahrez. “After a year in which we haven’t played, it is important that we look to the future. We are expecting two tough games and that is exactly what we need.”
That is what all three Arabian nations need.