Moroccan football has prospered in recent years, with the men’s national team reaching the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, the women’s national team reaching the round of 16 at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, the U-17s also reaching the last 16 at the recent FIFA U-17 World Cup, and the U-23s winning this year’s U-23 Africa Cup of Nations, qualifying for next year’s Olympic Games in the process.
Morocco also won the FIFA Futsal Confederations Cup 2022, climbing to eighth place in the world futsal rankings, having made it to the quarter-finals of the FIFA Futsal World Cup™ in 2021. Not only were these all firsts for Morocco, but no African or Arab national team had ever achieved any of these feats before. They have been racking up unprecedented achievements in no time at all, despite their relatively low standing in the recent past, and that is thanks to a plan that has been years in the making.
A comprehensive plan
Morocco’s successes in 2022 and 2023, not to mention the country’s successful bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2030 alongside Spain and Portugal, were no accident. In fact, all of this stems from a carefully constructed plan, which is now bearing fruits for Moroccan football and, with long-term sporting investment, will surely continue to do so in the future.
After a group stage exit in 1998, the Atlas Lions failed to qualify for another World Cup until 2018, and they also missed three editions of the Africa Cup of Nations in the 1990s. Such disappointing results were the result of a footballing setup that lacked a structured process for talent identification, player development or professionalisation.
All that changed thanks to the new project steered by Royal Moroccan Football Federation President, Fouzi Lekjaa. After Lekjaa was appointed to the role in 2017, results quickly picked up thanks to the plan that was implemented across Moroccan football, at all age groups and for the men’s and women’s game, with clubs also playing a key role.
Success begins to bud
With Lekjaa in place, the national federation worked on developing the sporting infrastructure in the country, building new stadia and renovating existing ones. As a result, Morocco was able to host this year’s Africa Cup of Nations across nine of its international stadiums and successfully bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2030 alongside Spain and Portugal.
In 2009, with Moroccan football at a low point, King Mohammed VI built a football academy at a cost of EUR 13 million, with the aim of developing the sport at the national level, and the results were impressive. The academy provides education as well as sporting development, with dedicated study spaces including ten classrooms. It also features a state-of-the-art sports medicine department ready to produce future professionals.
Several talented players have already come from the academy, such as Youssef En-Nesyri, Nayef Aguerd, Hamza Mendyl, Azzedine Ounahi, nine players from the U-17 national team, and six of the women’s team. It has become a gold mine for Morocco’s national teams and a key part in their success on the world stage.
Youth and women’s football
The federation obliged clubs to set up youth foundations to help identify and develop talent, and they have certainly done that, with a number of players going to Europe to play professionally and others raising the level of Moroccan clubs, enabling them to achieve great things in international competitions. Similarly, women’s football has greatly benefited from the changes, with AS FAR winning the CAF Women’s Champions League in 2022, not to mention the Atlas Lionesses reaching the round of 16 at this year’s Women’s World Cup. Investing in youth and women’s football was key to transforming Moroccan football. In 2020, FIFA gave football federations a grant of USD 500,000 US dollars to overcome the impact of COVID-19, and Lekjaa decided to put this money towards the development of women’s football in Morocco. These funds were used to hire Reynald Pedros as the women’s national team head coach, with responsibilities including overseeing the youth women’s teams and, most importantly, identifying Moroccan talent playing in Europe whilst continuing to develop football locally.
The federation sought to make the most of the large Moroccan diaspora, particularly given how many were playing in countries with a strong footballing tradition like the Netherlands, Spain and France. The challenge, once these players were identified, was to convince them to play for Morocco. Thanks to this process, Morocco could count on stars like Hakim Ziyech, Sofyan Amrabat, Nordin Amrabat, Achraf Hakimi, Noussair Mazraoui, who ultimately led the Atlas Lions to fourth place at Qatar 2022.
The Atlas Lionesses also benefited, with the addition of players such as Yasmine Zouhir, who plays her club football for Saint-Etienne, Iman Saoud, who plays in Switzerland, and Tottenham Hotspur star Rosella Ayane. Locally-based players have also reached a new level thanks to the improvements in both the men’s and women’s leagues. On top of this, Moroccan coaches have been given the opportunity to study, learn and gain experience, with a view to coaching the national teams and demonstrating their ability. With Walid Regragui taking over as head coach of the men’s national team, there are now Moroccan coaches overseeing every age group. After years in the doldrums, Morocco became a big name in football thanks to a comprehensive project, long-term planning and a belief in the rewards to be gained from continued hard work.