As part of the preparations for the 1986 World Cup, FIFA had arranged for the reception of each group, involving players and staff from all four participating teams. The reception of Group F was especially important to the media as it involved celebrity footballers like Gary Lineker, Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson and Zbigniew Boniek.
Busy with these stars, media personnel paid no heed to a group of players who had come to the party not clad in suits but just in their red Olympic tracksuits. They were the rank outsiders in Group F, expected to be the whipping boys and not newsworthy. The Moroccans would not forget this slight easily. Within a few weeks, the Lions of Atlas would make an emphatic statement on the pitch, ensuring attention from the world media and writing a golden chapter in the annals of African football.
The relationship between Africa and the World Cup was at best strained until the 1970s. Most of the early editions of the tournament saw FIFA take a favourable stance towards European and South American nations, leaving a significant number of teams from Asia and Africa fighting over the scraps of a single qualification spot. This led to an unprecedented event before the 1966 World Cup when 31 African teams boycotted the qualifiers to protest against FIFA.
The few that did successfully complete the rigorous circuit of qualification often came woefully short in the main tournament. Egypt, the first African team to play World Cup football 1934, made their way to Italy only to get dumped out in the first round. The continent had to wait for 36 years to get their next representative in the main tournament as Morocco qualified for Mexico 1970. The Lions of Atlas did significantly better, earning Africa’s first points courtesy of a 2-2 draw against Bulgaria. Zaire’s campaign in 1974 was fraught with internal problems, leading to some embarrassing results and a complete misrepresentation of their skills in the West. Tunisia made amends in 1978 by picking up a first victory for Africa by defeating Mexico 3-1.
In 1982, two African countries qualified for the first time, thanks to an increase in the number of participating teams, and both put up credible shows. Cameroon went undefeated in their group, but it was Algeria’s performance that became talk of the tournament.
A shock 2-1 victory over European champions West Germany and a 3-2 win over Chile in the last game brought them perilously close to progress to the knockout stages. Sadly, Algerian hearts were broken as neighbours West Germany and Austria played out a fixed 1-0 result which guaranteed qualification for both teams. The match would be later dubbed the ‘Disgrace of Gijón’.
By 1986 it was clear that African teams were more than capable of embarking on longer campaigns on football’s biggest stage. Algeria, with the experience of 1982 behind them, were expected to become the first side from the continent to cross that first hurdle. Expectations on Morocco were minimal.
The inspiration behind Morocco qualifying for their second World Cup had a Brazilian source. José Faria had overseen Fluminense’s youth teams from 1968 for 11 years. He then made a switch to Qatar, coaching the national under-19 team followed by a stint at Doha’s Al Sadd.
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In 1983 he was employed by the Morocco FA, balancing his national team job while also managing Rabat’s Royal Army club. Under the Brazilian, Morocco’s national team would enter it’s most prosperous era. One of his players would later describe him as, “A clever man, a pedagogue. Not the kind of man to come into your room to see what you were doing. He made us responsible.”
Faria’s first success came in 1983 when the Lions won gold at the Mediterranean Games. In the semi-final, they defeated Egypt before blitzing a Turkish B side 3-0 in final. They continued to pick up valuable experience in international football by qualifying for the final tournament of the 1984 Olympics. Although they lost to Brazil and West Germany, they defeated Saudi Arabia thanks Mustapha Merry goal.
Two months before Olympics, Morocco started their qualification campaign for 1986 World Cup. Merry struck thrice over two legs as Morocco swatted Sierra Leone 6-0 on aggregate to progress from the first round. Malawi produced little resistance in the second round as Faria’s men won 2-0 in Rabat before eking out a 0-0 draw in the away leg.
In third round, Morocco faced their most serious hurdle, squaring off against Egypt. In July 1985 they travelled to Cairo and dished out a defensively resolute performance to earn a 0-0 draw. Two weeks later at the Stade Mohamed V, their performance was pitch perfect, with Mohamed Timoumi and Aziz Bouderbala driving them to a 2-0 win.
Libya was Morocco’s final opponent in the playoff for one of the qualification slots, while Algeria battled Tunisia for the other. Playing the home leg first, the Lions of Atlas planted one foot firmly on Mexican soil with a 3-0 victory. Morocco’s remarkable defensive record of not being breached for close to 600 minutes finally ended in Benghazi.
Despite losing by a solitary goal, they never looked in danger of missing out on their first World Cup in 16 years. It brought not only jubilation to common Moroccans but also to the royalty – King Hassan II and his sons took a keen interest in their campaign and attended home matches.
Morocco’s performances continued to grow as they won silver at the 1985 Pan Arab Games. A few months before World Cup, they reached the semi-final of Africa Cup of Nations and narrowly lost to eventual champions Egypt.
Any hopes that the North Africans harboured of getting an easy group were dashed when the draws came out. Placed in Group F, Morocco were to play England, Poland and Portugal.
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Bobby Robson’s England were star-studded and had one of the strongest squads at the tournament. Poland had finished third at the 1982 World Cup and possessed some of the brightest attacking talents in Europe. Portugal were semi-finalists at Euro 84 and had stretched Michel Platini’s France to the very end before losing 3-2 in extra time. All three teams also had stellar qualification campaigns – England and Poland topped their groups while the highlight of the Portuguese campaign was a 1-0 victory over West Germany in Stuttgart.
Morocco’s 22-man squad had a healthy mix of youth and experience. The majority of their players came from the domestic circuit, with only six playing their football in Europe, mostly in France. They were also one of the first teams to arrive in Mexico.
For 40 days the Moroccans acclimatised and played warm-up matches against local teams. This long and meticulous preparation would pay rich dividends in the group games. Years later, Mustafa El Haddaoui gave an interview to FIFA, stating: “We were at an advantage as we knew their players, while they did not know us very well. In those times, it was quite difficult to get information about other teams.”
Their strength lay in a sturdy backline. In central defence, Mustafa El Biyaz was a rugged customer and was ably supported by veteran Labid Khalifa. Full-backs Abdelmajid Lamriss and Noureddine Bouyahyaoui usually played deeper, defensive roles, though left-back Lamriss would overlap if the midfield became crowded.
In goal, Zaki Badou was one of Morocco’s finest talents, and his performances in Mexico later earned him a transfer to Real Mallorca. Zaki would go on to have a successful career in Spain, earning a promotion to LaLiga as well as winning the Segunda División’s Zamora trophy in 1989.
Nicknamed ‘Maestro’, Abdelmajid Dolmy was the midfield anchor. With his work rate and tireless running, Dolmy ensured that the Moroccan midfield was rarely overrun against superior opponents. Mustafa El Haddaoui provided additional defensive cover, allowing more freedom to Morocco’s two most creative players.
Mohamed Timoumi – nicknamed ‘Maghrebi Platini’ – was the 1985 African Footballer of the Year and the conductor-in-chief of the Moroccan midfield. In an ITV pre-match segment, Tottenham Hotspurs coach David Pleat assessed Timoumi as a “compact, creative midfield player with an educated left foot. He spreads passes around the field in fine style”.
He had torn his ligament in December 1985 during an African Champions Cup match against Zamalek from Egypt. Such was his importance that King Hassan II recruited the best Moroccan surgeon to perform Timoumi’s surgery. After missing out for six months, he was returning to full fitness but lacked match practice.
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Morocco’s other creative outlet, Aziz Bouderbala, was a more mobile player. With his skill, clever change of pace and ability to utilise the space between the forward line and midfield, Bouderbala was a potent goal threat.
Two brothers formed Morocco’s attack. Mustafa Merry was Morocco’s top scorer in qualifiers but his brother, Abdelkarim ‘Krimau’ Merry, was the big star. Krimau was in fine form coming into the World Cup, having scored 17 goals in 34 matches for French side Le Havre. Ian Hawkey, from The Times, wrote on Krimau: “A striker with a broad chest on which he could stun a ball capably … a strong leader of the forward line.”
Morocco began their campaign on 2 June against Poland. The Poles were captained by Serie A superstar Zbigniew Boniek and had a two-pronged attack of Włodzimierz Smolarek and reigning Polish footballer of the year Dariusz Dziekanowski. The Lions of Atlas showed great discipline in defence, crowding out the creative Polish players in midfield and trying to counter by stretching their play courtesy of sprayed passes from Timoumi. Chances were few, however, and mostly from long range.
The pattern remained unchanged in the second half, though Poland created better opportunities. Krimau’s close-range header went just wide while Jan Urban forced a full-length save from Zaki. A mistake from Dolmiytowards the end almost broke Moroccan hearts but Urban’s shot ricocheted off the post. A goalless draw was perhaps not the most entertaining match for the fans, but Faria defended his approach: “We’d like to play good football but you can’t always do that, especially coming into a big tournament.”
Bobby Robson watched Morocco hold Poland from the gallery. His tactics to subdue the North Africans involved a physical approach and aerial dominance. After a loss to Portugal in the first match, England desperately needed a victory, and Robson expected the pairing of Gary Lineker and Mark Hateley to do the trick. The Moroccan midfield also had the unenviable task of containing a brilliant English midfield of Bryan Robson, Chris Waddle, Ray Wilkins and Glenn Hoddle.
Morocco kept their discipline in the first half and chances were at a premium for both sides. Braving stomach cramps, Zaki never put a foot wrong when smothering English crosses. The turning point of the match came just before half-time. Robson fell down awkwardly in the box, dislocated his shoulder, and had to go off.
Losing ‘Captain Marvel’ was bad enough, but things got worse a few minutes later. Already on a yellow, Wilkins disagreed with a call from the referee and threw the ball back at him. He was instantly shown a second yellow. Playing with 10 men in humid conditions was a formidable task against the skilful Moroccans.
In the end, neither team could break the deadlock. Hateley, Robson’s trump card was expertly marshalled by El Biyaz. Although Moroccan organisation was once again praised, there were murmurs from some sections of the press that they could have been more adventurous against 10 men. An English news report lambasted the Three Lions: “It was their worst World Cup humiliation since 1950.” Krimau taunted the English and called them a “team from the Middle Ages”.
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As the teams lined up for last round of the group stage, Poland had three points, Portugal and Morocco two each and England had just one. Morocco knew a win against Portugal would send them to where no African team had gone before.
Faria largely kept faith with the team that had earned two points, but made one big change. Mustapha Merry was dropped, Mustafa El Haddaoui was reinstated, and Abderrazak Khairi was paired with Krimau. It proved to be an inspired change.
Before the final match, Morocco had shifted their base from Monterrey to Guadalajara. Here they would come in contact with the Telê Santana’s brilliant Brazilian team of Sócrates, Zico and Falcão. Faria met some familiar faces, including team captain Edinho, his former pupil at Fluminense. In the superb Feet of the Chameleon, chronicling the history of football in Africa, Ian Hawkey writes: ”They mixed with the Brazil squad. Krimau had a jersey Sócrates gave him the day before the Portugal match. There, Morocco’s performance once again made Brazil and Africa football soulmates.” Socrates had special praise for Timoumi: “You are a Brazilian, you do not have a Moroccan game.”
On paper, Morocco were no match for Portugal. The Europeans boasted players that had reached the Euro 84 semis and a core of Porto players who would win the European Cup a year later. Yet, like so often with Portugal, all was not well in the camp.
First-choice goalkeeper Manuel Bento had fractured his fibula in training after the first match, while the atmosphere was hampered by players clashing with the authorities regarding prize money. Despite these problems, they still had quality. In Paulo Futre Portugal had one of the brightest young talents in Europe, while 1985 European Golden Boot winner Fernando Gomes provided a perennial goal threat.
If Portugal expected Morocco to start conservatively, as they had done in first two matches, then they were in for a jarring surprise. The North Africans came out firing on all cylinders from kick off, and their opponents had no idea what had hit them. Bouderbala came close in the opening minutes with a couple of long rangers while El Biyaz skied his shot after a corner.
In the 17th minute, Morocco drew first blood. Khairi latched onto a misplaced pass from Jaime Pacheco, took two touches then rifled in a laser-directed shot from the edge of the area. Seconds later, Khairi came close with a header. The Portuguese players were perhaps still coming to grips with Morocco’s exuberance when they conceded a second. This time, El Haddaoui swung a cross from the right wing. Khairi, completely unmarked, ghosted to the far post and finished powerfully. At half-time, the Moroccans were remarkably 2-0 up.
Portugal tried to stage a fightback but their efforts were repelled by reliable hands of Zaki. Two minutes after the hour mark, the match was put beyond doubt. A 10-pass move ended when Timoumi floated in a ball for Krimau, who took two touches before lifting it over the onrushing Portuguese goalkeeper. It was a strike that was celebrated not just in Morocco but across Africa.
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With England beating Poland, the unthinkable was confirmed: Morocco had created history by not only becoming the first African country to reach the World Cup knockout stages but as group winners. A jubilant Faria said in his post-match interview: “Never in the history of world soccer has a Third World or African team come first in its group, and this was a strong group. Lots of people expected us to lose and lots of people lost on the lottery. We could go home now. It’s as if we’ve won the world championship already.”
Morocco’s hope of securing an easy match after topping their group went up in smoke when they drew West Germany in the second round. The West Germans, however, had been unconvincing and Morocco had an outside chance. The Germans had finished second in their group after losing 2-0 to Denmark. Moreover, they had conceded in every group game and had to claw their way back to rescue points against Uruguay and Scotland.
Karl Heinz Rummenigge had only played his part as a second-half substitute in the group stage. He was finally declared fit enough to start alongside Rudi Völler for the Morocco match, however. To make matters worse for the Lions, they were without the talismanic El Biyaz in heart of their defence.
Once again, Morocco frustrated their more illustrious European opponents as the Germans struggled with the heat and humidity. Morocco’s major issue was their inability to create chances as Timoumi was marked out of the game by the magnificent Lothar Matthäus. While Rummenigge was the only German player causing problems for the Moroccan defence, Zaki was brilliant, making two incredible saves to deny a close-ranger header from Rummenigge and a Matthäus shot.
A few minutes before the final whistle, West Germany were awarded a free-kick 30 yards out. The Moroccan wall was poorly formed; Matthäus saw the gap and unleashed a low shot that crept in past the wall and eluded Zaki. After Morocco’s resolute defensive performance, this was quite the anticlimactic goal to concede. They sadly had no gas left in the tank to stage an unlikely comeback.
Despite their loss in the second round, Morocco returned as heroes with 100,000 people spilling onto the streets to welcome them home. Zaki’s performances in Mexico earned him the 1986 African Footballer of the Year award, while Bouderbala came second.
Morocco’s team of 1986 will always have a special place in African football folklore for breaking a glass ceiling. In 2006, the CAF compiled a list of the 200 best African players of previous 50 years. Six players from that team found their place on it – Bouderbala, El Biyaz, El Haddaoui, Timoumi, Zaki and Dolmy.
This summer’s World Cup will see Morocco make their first appearance in 20 years. They have again been placed in a difficult group with Spain and European champions Portugal. Many back home will be hoping for a repeat of their heroics at Mexico 86.
By Somnath Sengupta @baggiholic