June 10th, 1998, 21:00, Central European Time. The moon bloomed and the spreading shawl of the opaque night firmly gripped the Stade de la Mosson in Montpellier, France. Morocco, the 10th best team in the world, embarked on their 1998 World Cup campaign. Placed in the same group as world champions, Brazil, in addition to Scotland and Norway, Morocco’s golden generation got to test itself against the very best. Blood, sweat, and tears distilled Morocco’s short-lived but valiant display. We delve into the matches where time and history stood still for 28 million people and to this day left 37 million people reeling from the controversy and agony!
In a group with Gabon, Ghana and Sierra Leone, Morocco secured qualification as group winners with consummate ease: unbeaten (5 wins and 1 draw), highest goal difference (+12) and hauling the joint highest points tally (Tunisia: 16 points). Accompanying Morocco and Tunisia to the World Cup were Cameroon, Nigeria, and South Africa. Managed by the late Frenchmen Henri Michel, who presided over a squad wherein 15 of the 22 players played for French, Spanish, Belgian, German, and Portuguese clubs, Morocco’s European pedigree put them in good stead for France.
Matchday 1: Morocco vs Norway (2-2)
Morocco opened the competition against Norway. It was a promising start where Norwegian goalkeeper Frode Grodas denied Mustapha Hadji’s – Morocco’s poster boy – rasping shot. Morocco broke the deadlock against the break of play after the understatedly influential defensive midfielder Taher El Khalej’s penetrating pass found Hadji marauding the left flank. It was there when the pageantry was set and the exquisitely enrapturing feet of Hadji brought Dan Eggen to the dance, his last dance, which ended on his knees and the ball tucked away into the far corner. The visionary talent of Hadji and the beautifully heightened atmosphere only served to prompt a swift response from the Norwegians. Norway equalised before the break from a very poorly dealt with free-kick. Morocco’s goalkeeper Driss Benzekri hastened out of his line but was beaten by Norway’s Henning Berg. His header went in the direction of Youssef Chippo who incredulously headed the ball into his goal.
15 minutes into the second half and Morocco retook the lead thanks to Abdeljalil Hadda’s finish. El Khalej’s ball over the top was controlled by Hadda’s whose extra yard on the shoulder gave him the leverage to lift the ball past Grodas. Likewise, Morocco’s ascent was curtailed by another mishandled Norway free-kick. Benzekri flaps the ball half-heartedly to Eggen’s path who headed in from close range to haul Norway level. With Hadji’s showpiece festering in Eggen’s mind, he refrained from celebrating.
The game ended 2-2 apiece. It was an attractive and free-scoring, if somewhat self-destructive for Morocco who contrived and, inexplicably, squandered their lead twice. We brooded over the three points lost. Meanwhile, Brazil dispatched Scotland by 2 goals to 1.
Table: Matchday 1
Matchday 2: Morocco vs Brazil (0-3)
Unfortunately, the match against the world champions was a forgone conclusion in Nantes. Leonardo’s offside goal early on portended an abject afternoon for the Atlas Lions. Rivaldo’s deft one-touch through ball to Ronaldo culminated in a 9th-minute strike. The assist provider then turned goalscorer, giving the imperious Brazilians an unassailable lead at half-time. Cafu’s low ball was met with a tamed finish that was fumbled in by Benzekri. The second half wasn’t any better. Morocco, unable to muster a single attempt on goal, tried to keep pace with Brazil’s firepower, with their tongues hanging out and panting for breath like Carlo Collodi’s Pinnochio. Ronaldo dispossessed full-back Abdelilah Saber in his half and embarked on his trademark foray into the box, weaving past Youssef Rossi, and squeezing the ball between Benzerki and Noureddine Naybet for a Bebeto tap-in. Brazil’s triad stalked Morocco’s nightmares. Caught with their tails between their legs, an ashen-faced Morocco knew they had everything to play for in their group closer against Scotland. Incidentally, Scotland’s game against Norway painfully shuddered its way to an uninspiring 1-1 stalemate.
Table: Matchday 2
The permutation was simple: beat Scotland and hope Norway don’t win against Brazil. The second part was a given, just win and Morocco will advance to the knockout stage!
Matchday 3: Morocco vs Scotland (3-0)
Morocco quickly regrouped and refocused to secure a resounding 3-0 win against Scotland at Saint-Étienne, their biggest victory at a World Cup to date. Scotland’s direct and physical style of play played into Morocco’s hands who profited handsomely from the turnovers. Morocco dominated from the onset. A sumptuous ball over Scotland’s defence was welcomed by Salaheddine Bassir’s delectable volley. Lessons were learnt from the Norway game as Morocco showed no signs of abating or capitulating in the second half. Hadda extended Morocco’s lead by breaking in on goal and masterfully lobbing the ball over Jim Leighton, who pushes the ball high only for it to land into his net. Frustrated with the course of the contest, a toothless Craig Burley was sent off for scything down Bassir. Bassir rifled in the third, deflecting off Colin Hendry’s thigh. Having incurred the wrath of Brazil, Morocco’s rout was a cathartic release. British commentators had already given their verdict: “Morocco make the second round, Scotland, emphatically, do not.” Tragically, fate inflicted a cruel blow. For 75 minutes, the Norway and Brazil game in Marseille felt like a formality: a fruitless draw takes Morocco to the last 16 until Bebeto’s iconic diving header gave the Seleção the lead. Norway shortly replied in kind, so the formality remained: Morocco will be going through. However, a minute away from stoppage time, Junior Baiano controversially fouls Tore Andre Flo to reward Norway with a penalty. Kjetil Rekdal’s converted penalty in the dying moments kept the Brazilians at bay and condemned the Atlas Lions to a successive group stage exit.
Table: Matchday 3 (the first two teams qualify)
What could have been!
There are two cries of foul at the controversy. First and foremost, it wasn’t a penalty. Junior Baiano barely ‘pulled’ Andre Flo’s shirt, let alone touched him for leverage upon ascent to clear a lofted ball. “It is very unusual for a referee to give a penalty in that situation”, remarked Cafu, notwithstanding the ostensibly partisan view. Second, is the lingering thought of a conspiracy. It goes along the lines of the referee, who was an American, conspired to eliminate Morocco in favour of a European side and perpetuate a miasmic anti-African bias. Harking back to the Disgrace of Gijón in 1982 and Algeria found themselves in a similar position as their neighbours: Germany, who already qualified, and Austria, who needed to avoid a 3-goal defeat to progress, played out to a 1-0 win to take them through. At least, in that context, there is admissible evidence of match-fixing as Algeria faced Chile the day before, allowing the permutation to be played out. Sadly, for Moroccans, it is harder to allege match-fixing, let alone discern Brazil’s motives, when both matches took place simultaneously – an edict issued following the 1982 debacle.
Perhaps entrenching this view was Cameroon having multiple goals disallowed in their group decider against Chile, denying them the much-needed victory to progress into the knockout stage. Again, there is a strong case anti-African bias, but this needs to be reviewed case by case, match by match! Yet, Morocco’s case does not hold. Further evidence leans to Brazil’s unenviable record against Norway, the only team in the world to have never lost to the Brazilians (2 wins and 2 draws), which is an indictment of Brazil’s systematic and historical ineptitude. The notion that the American referee was somehow cognizant of this context signals the peril of our romanticism: lulling us into a false sense of entitlement and victimhood, almost overlooking Morocco’s error-strewn performance against Norway. Should we temper our romanticism with realism, we would have realised that destiny was in our hands irrespective of Brazil’s defeat. The problem lies in relying on other teams to spare us the misfortune of elimination, but I digress; after all, this is not a cause for condemnation but celebration!
What makes this canonised Moroccan contingent remembered fondly was their indomitable and competitive spirit. The best FIFA ranked Moroccan side to date went on a trailblazing, albeit effervescent, run. Amid flirting with qualification, the message became clear: we were not here to be cannon fodder; if anything, we were here to upstage the cemented hierarchy. The team harnessed the belief of the nation that their gilded greats could catapult us to unqualified success and achieve the unthinkable in the world’s most prestigious tournament. Our poster boy announced himself on the biggest stage with aplomb, scoring, arguably, the goal of the round. Hadji would end the year becoming the African Footballer of the Year.
Indeed, we can never recapture those scintillating 90 minutes in Saint-Étienne. Indeed, we may never reach these celestial heights again. Indeed, we are confined to a cloister of contemplation of what could have been. It only takes wearing that shirt that proudly sports the colours of the flag to relieve our glorious past. With great power comes great responsibility, with (a) great shirt comes great memories!
Zakariah Gassasse is a researcher in Health Economics, Epidemiology and Statistics. Born and raised in London to a Moroccan family, he completed his Masters from University College London in Health Economics and Decision Science. Currently, he is teaching the ‘Advanced Epidemiology and Statistics’ module to 2nd year Global Health students and conducting research for the The Institute of Population Health Sciences at Queen Mary University of London.