Herve Renard: The common link between Morocco success and Saudi promise

Special Herve Renard: The common link between Morocco success and Saudi promise
The man in the white shirt: Saudi coach Herve Renard previously managed Morocco. (Getty Images)
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Updated 19 December 2022

Herve Renard: The common link between Morocco success and Saudi promise

Herve Renard: The common link between Morocco success and Saudi promise
  • French coach’s 2022 World Cup campaign with Green Falcons recalls Atlas Lions showing 4 years ago in Russia
  • Renard spent three and a half years in Morocco before leaving in the summer of 2019 and swapping Rabat for Riyadh

Morocco are the toast of world football having reached the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup, but the journey to the last four did not come out of nowhere and it is one that has been watched closely elsewhere in the region.

Four years ago, the Atlas Lions were placed in a tough group in Russia with Spain, Portugal and Iran but just could not get past the group stage. The story of Saudi Arabia in 2022 sounds similar. The Green Falcons were placed in a tough group in Qatar with Argentina, Poland and Mexico and impressed but could not quite get out of their group.

There is a connection between the two teams and the two tournaments and that is Herve Renard. In 2018, he was in charge of Morocco and now, the Frenchman is in charge of the Green Falcons. He has had quite an impact at this tournament and, as he has a contract in Riyadh until 2027, perhaps in the next one, too.

When he watched the North Africans defeat Portugal in the quarterfinals, Renard must have felt pride in his old team for what they had done over the last month. He must also have felt renewed motivation toward the team he now leads. The parallels are obvious as is the conclusion that can be drawn: What Morocco did in the four years between Russia and Qatar, Saudi Arabia could do between Qatar and the US, Canada and Mexico.

Renard spent three and a half years in Morocco before leaving in the summer of 2019 and swapping Rabat for Riyadh. He saw the Mohammed VI Academy, a world-class training facility that opened in 2009 with top-class facilities, coaching and education. Graduates include now world-famous players such as Azzedine Ounahi, Youssef En-Nesyri and Nayef Aguerd.

The investment made and the patience shown at all levels — the women reached the final of the Women’s African Nations Cup earlier in the year and became the first side from the Arab world to qualify for the Women’s World Cup which will take place next summer — is there for all to see.

This philosophy and policy is not a common one in the Arab world where there are too many federations, clubs and national teams that want results right now and care about little else. Morocco’s success should not only be inspirational in showing how Arab teams can compete with the best in the world but also demonstrate the necessity of putting in hard work behind the scenes.

Saudi Arabia are still on that journey and improvements have been made in recent years. The success of the various youth teams is testament to that. The country’s U-23 team roared to the Asian title in June, lifting the trophy in almost Morocco-like fashion without conceding a single goal. The group was tough enough, containing Japan, the UAE and Tajikistan.

Then came knockout wins over Vietnam, Australia and then a victory over hosts Uzbekistan in the final, to break the hearts of 35,000 passionate home fans. The U-19 and U-20 team are the defending Asian champions too and have won the last two U-20 Arab Cups. All in all, the signs for the future are very good indeed. The country is home to the Asian champions and it could be argued that the Saudi Professional League is the strongest in the entire continent with only Japan as a rival.

For those who have been watching events in the country in the past year or two, the exploits of the team in Qatar did not come as a complete shock. The spectacular and deserved come-from-behind win over Argentina in the opening game was, of course, a major surprise, but most people in the country expected the team to be competitive, if not to actually defeat the team that would go on to be crowned champions.

There was an unfortunate 2-0 loss at the hands of Poland when the West Asian powerhouse performed well but missed a penalty and came up against an inspired goalkeeper. It ended with a 2-1 defeat to Mexico. In a tough group, Saudi Arabia held their own and were close to going through.

Morocco did just that and have something that the Green Falcons clearly do not — a national team squad bursting with players who are based overseas. That has to be the next step for Saudi Arabia, who came into the World Cup with a squad based entirely at home. One positive is that given how the team played there is genuine European interest in some players. Saud Abdulhamid has been linked with clubs in England, Italy and Spain. Mohamed Kanno is also on shopping lists. It will not be easy for the pioneers but if they can find their feet and forge a path to Europe, others will follow.

That is the dream: Stars who go overseas to improve and bring their international experience back when they represent their country, and who also leave opportunities at home for promising youngsters to get some playing time and make names for themselves. Then, the virtuous cycle continues.

Renard would love nothing more than to see some of his players head north. He has already had an influence on Morocco’s success and has already brought respect to football in Saudi Arabia. If history repeats itself then the world should get ready for the Green Falcons in 2026.