(Reuters) - A peace offering in an Amsterdam coffee shop proved a catalyst for Morocco’s late rally to success in the World Cup qualifiers and their first appearance at the finals in 20 years since the 1998 tournament in France.
Coach Herve Renard travelled to the Netherlands in mid-year for a make-up meeting with maverick midfield talent Hakim Ziyech, who had quit the team after Renard left him out of the squad for the African Nations Cup at the start of the year. Dutch-born Ziyech, 24, returned to the side with immediate effect and scored twice in a decisive 6-0 home win over Mali in September that proved the turning point of the campaign. Ziyech is among a bevy of talented midfielders who make the Moroccan side tick along with Mbark Boussoufa, also born in the Netherlands, and French-born Younes Belhanda. Morocco have dipped extensively in the Diaspora with players born to immigrant parents in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain strengthening the squad.
Morocco’s federation actively pursues European-born players with potential, tugging at family loyalties and nationalistic sentiment. Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal, Morocco’s key attacker, spent a year deciding whether to try and make the France team or opt for Morocco before Renard, who coached him at Lille, persuaded him to join the north African nation’s cause. The flamboyant French coach signed a new deal on Tuesday as reward for engineering qualification as Morocco came from behind to usurp Ivory Coast, with whom Renard won the 2015 Nations Cup. Morocco took advantage of a stumbling campaign by the Ivorians and, needing a point in their last game in Abidjan, won 2-0 away to Ivory Coast, who would have qualified themselves with a victory, to top Africa’s Group C by four points.
Editing by Ken Ferris