Al-Hilal, the most successful team in Asian history with four continental championships, are approaching the FIFA Club World Cup in high spirits.
The first match, however, is going to be even tougher than usual.
Wydad AC are not only African champions, but are playing in their home nation of Morocco, a country currently flying high in international football. Also high are hopes that passionate local fans can help the Casablanca club overcome the “Real Madrid of Asia” and go as far in this tournament, or even further, than in other recent global competitions.
Last July, Morocco hosted the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations and took it by storm on and off the pitch. No Arab team had ever progressed past the group stage before, but they swept to the final on the back of genuine excitement and delight from the North African nation.
There were full stadiums as the Atlas Lionesses topped their group, beat Botswana in the quarterfinals and then squeezed past Nigeria, winners of 11 of the 13 past tournaments, 5-4 in a semifinal penalty shootout. With such narrow margins in that game, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the fans inside the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium made the difference.
There were messages from King Mohammed VI and other prominent figures, and while South Africa were a little too strong in the final, the host nation and the fans did themselves proud. There will obviously not be as many who make the long trip to New Zealand and Australia in the summer as Morocco become the first Arab representative at the Women’s World Cup, but it will be well-watched at home.
If it goes anywhere near as well as the men’s World Cup then it will be quite a show. Heading into the 2022 tournament, many expected a repeat of 2018 when Morocco were in a tough group, performed well and then went home early.
Not quite. It started with a goalless draw against 2018 finalists Croatia. Deserved wins over Belgium, ranked second in the world, and then Canada gave the Atlas Lions top spot in their group. Then came a famous second-round victory over 2010 winners Spain. That was followed by an even more famous win over Portugal. It ended with a 2-0 defeat in the semifinal to France and they pushed the defending champions all the way.
While the likes of Sofyan Amrabat, Yassine Bounou and Achraf Hakimi made many headlines, so did the fans. Tens of thousands crammed into stadiums in Qatar and generated incredible atmospheres that could be felt around the world. Many felt they were the best fans at the tournament and it is certainly true that the games against European giants Spain, Portugal and France felt like home games for Morocco.
That is something that Wydad coach Mehdi Nafti hopes can be replicated in the coming week or so, even if the opener against Al-Hilal is not in Casablanca, but Rabat.
“We will not be worse than other teams even if we know that we are not favorites, but we know that we will play at home in front of our fans and this is great for us and a great motivation, and we would like to continue the situation that followed the World Cup with the Moroccan national team,” the 44-year-old said.
“I know for sure that the rest of the teams will respect us, and this is a great challenge for us. It is very important that we have experienced stars in the team, and with our hearts and our fans we can move mountains.”
Nafti, a former Tunisian international, has been in the job at Wydad for just a month.He succeeded Hussein Ammouta, who was fired in November after a 3-0 defeat to FUS Rabat. Ammouta replaced Walid Regragui, the man who led Wydad to the African title in May with a win over Egyptian giants Al-Ahly (who are also at the Club World Cup and face Seattle Sounders for the right to take on Real Madrid).
The 47-year-old Regragui then left in August to take over the Moroccan national team and led them to World Cup success.
It is not a surprise then that Nafti has been in contact with Regragui, a former teammate.
“I knew that I would coach the African champions who won the local league last season, and the coach who was here is a friend of mine, so all these things made me accept the task, not only that we will play at the Club World Cup.”
“I still have contact with Regragui,” Nafti added. “We played together in France with Toulouse and in Racing Santander as well. He helped me a lot, especially in the early days, to adapt and learn about Wydad quickly.”
It seems to have worked. Domestic form is good, and Wydad have won four and drawn two of the last six leagues and sit second in the league.
With three members of the World Cup squad — Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti, Yahya Jabrane and Yahia Attiyat Allah — and star midfielder Aymane Hassouni in good form, and new Cameroon striker Didier Lamkel added to the team, there is hope.
Regragui believes that if Al-Hilal can be defeated then Wydad can go far.
“I expect a balanced game because Al- Hilal are the Real Madrid of Asia, and have exceptional players and supporters, but playing at home is an advantage for Wydad,” Regragui said.
“Wydad have talented players. Aymane Hassouni is a great player and deserves to shine. The team has also been strengthened by new recruits capable of making a difference. The game against Hilal is a tough game. If Wydad manage to win, they can easily reach the final. Everything is possible.”