RIYADH: Of the four Arab teams at the World Cup, Asia’s pair Saudi Arabia and Qatar have head coaches from France and Spain, respectively.
Africa has a different approach and has gone local with Tunisia having Jalel Kadri and, last week, Morocco appointing Walid Regragui to take control of the team less than three months from the start of the World Cup in November.
There is not much time before the tests against Croatia, Belgium, and Canada but fans are, for the moment at least, feeling much happier.
The appointment hardly came as a surprise and was expected ever since Vahid Halilhodzic was fired in August. Spare a thought for the Bosnian boss as he became the first to successfully lead three teams to a World Cup only to be fired before the tournament started.
Ivory Coast pulled the trigger in 2010 after a poor performance at the Africa Cup of Nations. Japan did the same in 2018 after Halilhodzic’s relationships with certain players broke down, and in the case of Morocco it was a combination of the two, though more of the latter.
Falling out with star player Hakim Ziyech cost the man who led Algeria to the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup, the chance to go to Qatar.
In September last year, Halilhodzic dropped the Chelsea attacker saying that he had feigned injury to avoid being called up to face Ghana in June 2021.
Halidhozic said: “For the first time in my coaching career, I have seen behavior that disappoints me. A player who refuses to play a game, admittedly a friendly, on the pretext that he is injured.” The coach also dropped Ajax, now Bayern Munich, full-back Noussair Mazraoui.
Had results been better perhaps the outcome could have been different.
Morocco may have qualified for the World Cup in March, but the Atlas Lions crashed out of the Africa Cup of Nations at the quarter-final stage in January. In June, came a comprehensive 3-0 loss to the US in a friendly that heightened concerns about where the team was going.
In the end, it came to a choice between star players and a combustible coach. Quite quickly, the media and fans chose the players. The writing on the wall came in July when the Royal Moroccan Football Federation seemed to be of the same opinion too. Federation president, Fouzi Lekjaa, said on radio that Ziyech would be in Qatar. The problem was that the former Ajax man had already made it clear that he was not going to play under the Bosnian.
“I will never play under (the management of) this national team coach again, no matter what he does,” Ziyech, recently linked to Manchester United, told Dutch football commentator Hans Kraay Jr. in a May interview. “Whether he flies high, flies low, stands on my doorstep, wants to sleep in my attic or in the basement, I will not play under the command of this coach.”
The axe fell and Halilhodzic was out of the door.
Four years ago, he was so angry by the Japanese dismissal that he hit the Japanese Football Association with a lawsuit (which he dropped a few months later) but this time he just seems a little sad and resigned and is talking about retiring.
He told Bosnian media: “Everything that was happening hit me hard. So, am I cursed? According to statistics, I am their most successful coach in history, but, well, that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s not a sport. I’m sorry that this is happening to me for the third time in my career, especially since I know how much work and effort I put in.”
Now comes Regragui, at 47, 22 years Halilhodzic’s junior. The former Moroccan international led Fath Union Sport to the league in 2016. He then headed to Doha to deliver the 2020 Qatar Stars League crown to Al-Duhail. In 2021, he returned home and led Wydad Casablanca to the African Champions League as well as the domestic title. In July, he stepped down from the club and the rest was inevitable.
The new boss is dynamic, regarded as tactically astute and a student of the game and the opposition too and always ready to change things around depending on what is happening on the pitch. Friendlies against Paraguay and Chile in Spain in September, presumably with Ziyech present, will be vital to prepare for the big tournament when the Atlas Lions want to repeat their success of 1986 when they became the first team from Africa to reach the knockout stages.
It remains to be seen if recent events will make that more likely but at the moment at least, turning to a local coach has put a spring in the step of Morocco.