In Moroccan soccer, notify the coach Juan Pedro Benali, Facebook rules a lot. “If you have the bad luck that your president pays attention to you, you don’t have a good time,” says this well-versed in how things are cooked on the other side of the Strait. His connection with the North African country comes from the cradle. He was born in the Sahara 53 years ago (his father was a Spanish soldier), he grew up in Cartagena and in the last quarter of a century he has accumulated a decade of experience in that league. “This has changed a lot, especially since six or seven years ago. They have put the VAR, all the fields are already made of natural grass, the federation is investing a lot in academies and they have turned all the entities into limited companies to try to control the problem of debts ”, Benali assesses about a country that from one day to another became the object of study to try to find out how, still belonging to the second or third division, he had slipped into the semifinals of a World Cup. This week, the Club World Cup being played by Madrid has once again placed two cities on the map, Tangier and Rabat, where in their medinas, every two steps, the shirts of the En-Nesyri, Ziyech or Achraf compete with those of Ronaldo , Messi and Mbappé.
What has not changed, according to this technician with a background also in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Japan, is the enormous internal criticism. “You go to the Raja or Wydad stadium, except for the main stands, people do not attend the game. They are fans who jump and sing, and then they crush you. Trainers don’t last long. I caught Ittihad Tangier twice, saved it and they told me they wanted to bring in another more famous one. Now they are last and since July another three have already passed ”, indicates Benali.
A censorship from which not even the heroes of Doha escaped. “Four years ago, there was a very big debate because players who were not born in Morocco or had not been trained in Europe would not be improved as Moroccans. An important sector only wanted footballers from the League. Hervé Renard and Vahid Halilhodzic [los seleccionadores anteriores a Walid Regragui] they had a lot of trouble with this. As soon as they lost a game, they claimed the home team. Some have even continued to be criticized a lot during the World Cup. But the difference is huge. They also charged against Walid after the semifinal. They accused him of changing the system against France”, reveals Juan Pedro Benali with surprise.
Despite the acidity of the fans with their own, the data left few doubts about the keys to Qatari success: only three of the 26 called up were playing in the domestic competition and 14 were born outside of Morocco. A network of recruiters distributed throughout the old continent -especially in the big squares of Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany or Italy- and promoted by Nasser Larguet has spent years combing every corner to have on file any young man with Moroccan origins susceptible to play in the selection
Sergio Piernas (Barcelona, 46 years old), coach of the under-17 between January 2020 and April 2021, collected these lists. “In my database there were more than 200 footballers of that age who were in Europe, whom we took to our facilities to see them live. We also talk to the clubs. Some put up barriers because they made the kids see that they were going with Morocco and not with the selection of that country it could harm them, ”says the assistant coach today in the Saudi Arabian Olympic team. “And then there were those who had already debuted with other teams. There were 21 of them. I called them one by one and I visited half of them personally to tell them about the project because the idea was that they would go up to the absolute top. In fact, one of them, Bilal El Khannous [del Genk belga]he went to the World Cup and played third and fourth place”, expands Piernas, who assures that he came to meet players of up to four nationalities.
the network of recruiters
The European seedbed has given them the great leap thanks to that spider web of exploration, but on its borders the promotion of grassroots football academies has also represented progress. In the most important, the Mohamed VI, controlled directly by the king, the World Cup players En-Nesyri, Aguerd, Ounahi and Tagnaouti were cooked. The first three, key in Regragui’s plans. Xavi Bernal (Wuppertal, Germany; 55 years old) worked there as head of training and post-training at this center that nurtures almost 100 young people.
“The center recruits the best clubs in the country and other strong teams have had to wake up to be competitive against the academy. In any case, those who leave still need two or three more years to continue their evolution because the Moroccan context does not allow them to reach a high level. Soccer is very fast in Europe and they don’t have that speed, ”argues Bernal, who gives Ounahi as an example, of whom Luis Enrique publicly showed his surprise. “When he finished at the academy, we put him in Strasbourg and after two years they discarded him because they didn’t like him. So he came back and we didn’t know what to do with him until we got him a team from the French National. [tercera categoría], the Avranches. There he played well and Angers [de la Ligue 1] he noticed him ”, details the coach, today in Senegal. “Europe is more to blame for what Morocco did in the World Cup than Morocco,” Bernal says.
A football with two very marked worlds: a League with signs of improvement but which attracts more African players than Europeans and where the largest budgets are only around 10-12 million euros; against a team that gave the big blow in the World Cup. “People made the round trip on the day just for the game. The ticket cost 500 euros and the federation gave away many tickets. There were some tremendous troubles at the airport”, closes Juan Pedro Benali. Back home, in his domestic tournament, the story is different.
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