Morocco face decisive qualifier against Ivory Coast in Abidijan while a point at home to Libya will see Tunisia reach Russia 2018
Football in Mena region on the rise again as Morocco and Tunisia on verge of reaching 2018 World Cup alongside Egypt
It has been a stealthy shift of power, although it can scarcely be said to have happened on the quiet. The noise generated across Egypt at the moment Mohamed Salah’s penalty ensured the Pharaohs a place at a World Cup finals for the first time since 1990 still hums, a month later.
By the end of this weekend, Egypt may well have been joined by two more nations from north Africa, breaking the continent’s entrenched habits. At the Brazil World Cup, the same five African countries who qualified for the 2010 edition in South Africa all appeared again, four of them from the sub-Saharan region.
In Russia, it may well be that only Nigeria survive for a third successive World Cup and are accompanied this time by a trio of countries from the north.
Tunisia, who need just a point at home to Libya – already out of contention - to secure their first participation since 2006, are best placed. Morocco feel tantalisingly close. A draw in Ivory Coast would put the so-called Atlas Lions through and end a 20-year absence for a country which had been the pathfinder for the continent at the sport’s greatest showpiece.
Morocco, back in 1970, were the first African country to win a point at a World Cup. Sixteen years later, they were first to reach the second phase at a finals.
In the period since, west Africa has largely set the highest standards, and in the 21st century, it has supplied the global stars, from Samuel Eto’o to Didier Drogba to Yaya Toure. But last year, a Maghrebian was named Africa’s Footballer of the Year, Riyad Mahrez the first player from the north to take the award since Morocco’s Mustapha El Hadji, back in 1998.
Mahrez’s Algeria may have had a spectacularly disappointing year, but their near-neighbours are heading upwards. Salah looks favourite to be named the next African Football of the Year, the embodiment of Egypt’s renaissance after the turmoil that impacted on its football in the years of political strife.
Last weekend, the African Champions Cup final was contested by Al Ahly of Cairo and Wydad Casablanca, the Moroccan club edging to victory over two legs to secure their place in December's Fifa Club World Cup to be held in the UAE. It had been the first time in five years two Mena (Middle East and North Africa) teams finished first and second in Africa’s premier club tournament. The north dominated, with two Tunisian clubs, and Al Ahli of Tripoli and USM Alger in the quarter-finals and a clean sweep of contenders from Mediterranean nations in the last four.
And if there’s one man swimming with this tide, it is Herve Renard, the manager of Morocco. The Frenchman, conspicuous on the touchlines of Africa’s stadiums for the last decade in his smart, bright white shirt, has made history in southern Africa, in west Africa and now hopes to do so in the north.
“It has always been a dream of mine to go to a World Cup. Morocco has all the resources to be successful but maybe has a tendency to suffer under the burdens of past triumphs,” Renard said.
Renard managed Zambia to a historic triumph at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012. He then steered Ivory Coast to the same prize three years later, and though Morocco could not deliver an unprecedented treble for him at the Nations Cup this year, he has guided them to top of the World Cup table, a point above Ivory Coast ahead of Saturday’s decisive qualifier.
Renard’s presence in Abidjan, perhaps wearing his "lucky" white shirt, is unnerving for the Ivorians, many of whom played under him.
“He’s very meticulous as a coach,” said Salomon Kalou, the Ivory Coast striker aiming to reach his third World Cup. “He will try to use his knowledge of how we work.”
Renard’s knowledge of Abidjan certainly means one thing: He recognises the last step to Russia will not be negotiated quietly.