Morocco backed the right horse and will enjoy Ahmad’s victory over the next four years. The election of the Madagascan politician as president of the Confederation of African Football in April helped the North African country return to the big league.
After losing the rights to host the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations and a subsequent two-tournament ban under Issa Hayatou, Morocco bided its time, played the waiting game and struck when least expected. It played the politics well and ensured that Hayatou’s almost three decades in charge was swiftly brought to an end in Addis Ababa.
On February 28, Morocco’s ambassador to Nigeria visited the headquarters of the Nigeria Football Federation where he met with Amaju Pinnick. Moha Ouali Tagma asked for “stronger ties” with the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FMRF) to benefit both countries ahead of a planned an invitation to Rabat for the NFF leader.
A week later, Pinnick and his 2nd vice president Shehu Dikko were in Morocco to meet with FMRF president Fouzi Lekjaa where talks began on a memorandum of understanding to ensure collaboration between the federations and their leagues for technical exchanges and other strategic agreements including friendly matches.
Two weeks afterwards on March 16, Hayatou was overwhelmingly trounced in Addis as Ahmad became president. There began growing talk in the media that Cameroon could lose the rights to host the 2019 Afcon with Morocco standing by as possible replacements.
Nigerian newspaper Vanguard claimed Moroccan media had quoted Mr Lekjaa thus: “In 2015, because of the Ebola epidemic, the Cameroon management had deprived us of the organisation of this competition. In 2019, we will replace Cameroon to host the CAN. It is the revenge of history.”
In July when news broke that Morocco would put in a bid to host the 2026 Fifa World Cup, it came out of Nigeria.
“I’ve been told Morocco wants to put in its bid and CAF will support them 100%,” Pinnick was quoted by the BBC. “I’d be surprised (if Morocco does not put in a bid), but I think they will.”
It was confirmed a few weeks later as Morocco submitted their bid just before the deadline to contest the new 48-team tournament against the joint bid by the USA, Canada and Mexico.
The bid has received the support of Ahmad who said: “We are convinced that Morocco could organise this competition just as South Africa did in 2010.”
Morocco has the fifth biggest GDP on the continent after Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa and Algeria and is the 11th most populated. While other North African countries were racked by the Arab Spring in 2011, Morocco avoided trouble as King Mohamed VI effected reforms to keep his kingdom safe from the upheaval that left neighbours in political turmoil.
Now the country is looking increasingly outwards following years of staying away from continental gatherings due to its stance on the disputed Western Sahara.
In August, Nigeria’s U15 boys’ team flew to play two friendly matches against the Moroccans, all expenses paid by their hosts. A team official told me in glowing words about the facilities that the Moroccans offered – five-star accommodation, a state of the art football technical centre, warm welcome, etc.
Morocco trained 19 coaches of the Ethiopian Football Federation all expenses paid in September. They have also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Angolan football federation.
“Since Morocco rejoined the [African Union] in 2017 after 33 years, they are taking positive steps to build strong ties with AU member nations and particularly Ethiopia as a seat of the AU and an important player in the region,” Juneidi Basha, president of the Ethiopian Football Federation, told me.
Morocco’s interest also extends into the West African region where it is on the verge of joining the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
It is clear that Morocco is ready to play the politics and is backing it with big money. They hosted two prominent football events, the African Football Symposium and the Caf Extraordinary General Assembly, attended by Fifa president Gianni Infantino in July where Lekjaa was elected as the third vice president of Caf.
It was an opportunity to show off potential.
“We have six stadiums in Marrakech, Agadir, Casablanca, Rabat, Fez, Tangier and Tetouan. These are cities that have FIFA stadiums with all the infrastructures that go with it matching the ambitions of Africa,” said Lekjaa with an eye on hosting the 24-team Afcon in 2019.
The stadium in Tangier hosted the French Cup of Champions between PSG and Monaco on July 29 while Rabat, Marrakech and Agadir hosted matches of the Fifa Club World Cup in 2013 and 2014.
Morocco looks set to get the 2018 African Nations Championship that was recently stripped off Kenya due to delays in facility delivery. The 2019 Afcon is a possibility.
Morocco’s football soft power is growing at a steady pace on the continent but the 2026 World Cup bid looks largely unrealistic.