It was just last month that Morocco were the deserved toast of the World Cup after reaching the semifinals and pushing then reigning champions France all the way before bowing out.
It was the best ever performance by an Arab or African team. For that month in Qatar, the Atlas Lions were in dreamland, as was much of the region.
There was even some pride at the home of their fierce football rivals Algeria.
Now, however, it is back to the everyday reality of football logistics and politics in Africa.
A major controversy looked likely after Morocco on Thursday withdrew from the African Nations Championships (CHAN), the seventh edition of the tournament that will kick off in Algiers on Friday.
But a change of heart in Rabat means the team will now take part in the competition, starting with a clash against Sudan on Sunday.
Morocco have been drawn in Group C where they will also face Madagascar and Ghana. After winning the last two tournaments in 2018 and 2020, the team is one of the favorites. The competition is reserved for under-23 players who are in action for clubs that belong to the league of their country, meaning the likes of Achraf Hakimi of Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech are ineligible to attend.
For a while, it did look as if no Moroccans would be going there at all.
Relations between Morocco and Algeria had been strained for some time due to a dispute over the Western Sahara region, with the land border between the two countries closed since 1994.
In September 2021, a month after breaking off diplomatic relations, Algeria then closed its airspace to flights from its North African neighbor and that was the reason behind the initial decision by Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) to pull out. The body had made a request that their team, who have been in a training camp at home for much of the past week, be able to fly directly from the capital, Rabat, into Algeria.
“While the trip of the Moroccan selection from Rabat to Constantine (the northeastern Algerian city that is the main host of Group C games) is organized by the FRMF and the kickoff of CHAN is scheduled for Jan. 13, 2023, meaning in 24 hours, the FRMF notes with regret that obtaining a final authorization of the RAM (Royal Air Maroc) flight from Rabat to Constantine has unfortunately still not been confirmed by CAF (Confederation of African Football),” FRMF said in a statement released on Thursday.
There was no official response from Algeria. Last week Abderrazak Sebgag, the country’s minister of sports, advised that Morocco’s request would be considered and that the CAF would be informed of any decision. “The FAF (Algerian FA) will respond to CAF via official channels. Algeria has its laws, its sovereignty which is above all consideration,” he said.
It did not look good. As often happens when politics enters the field of sports and has a major effect, it is the fans and players who miss out.
Morocco are the leading African nation at this moment. At the club level, they are home to the best team in Africa, after Wydad AC defeated Al-Ahly of Egypt in the final of the CAF Champions League last May. Under the same victorious coach Walid Regragui, the national team then won their World Cup group, defeating Belgium and Canada, and then eliminating Spain and Portugal in the knockout stages.
CHAN does not have the same hold on the popular imagination as the Africa Cup of Nations with its superior star power and color. It is still, however, an important event. Morocco are defending champions and the number one African nation at the moment and would have been missed had they stayed home. Their players would not have got the international experience that will help them develop. The same could be said for those from Ghana, and especially Madagascar and Sudan, who should welcome the chance to face such strong opposition. It is also true for the tournament as a whole. Morocco’s presence improves standards on the pitch and enhances the appeal of the event off it.
Without the Atlas Lions in the competition, Algeria would have been favorites to win in the final on Feb. 4 had Morocco been absent. Les Fennecs kick off the opening game on Friday against Libya at the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Algiers. Libya are one of the few teams to have lifted the trophy along with Tunisia, DR Congo and Morocco.
Their chances will be reduced a little with the presence of Morocco but CHAN 2022 is all the richer for it.