Despite Fans’ Frustration, Popular Demand, New Coach of Atlas Lions Won’t Be Moroccan

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Rabat – The next coach of the Moroccan national football team will not be a Moroccan national, in spite of popular demands that “a man of the country” take over in the aftermath of the recent debacle at the African Cup of Nations.

Almost a fortnight after the dramatic end of its three-year-long romance with Herve Renard, the Moroccan Royal Football Federation (FRMF) has appointed Bosnia’s Vahid Halilhodzic as the new head coach of the Atlas Lions, according to Moroccan outlet Al Ahdath Al Maghribia.

The appointment, which is yet to be confirmed by FRMF, comes two days after the body presented a three-name shortlist featuring the German Gernot Rohr, the French Laurent Blanc, and the Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic.

Rohr looked like the least probable replacement, however. The German has had a satisfactory stint as the coach of Nigeria’s Super Eagles.

His team won third place at the recently played Africa Cup of Nations, and the German manager made an impression for disciplining a not-so-talented Nigerian side, for inspiring ordinary players to perform as well as the great and frighteningly talented Nigerian squads of the good old days of Nigerian football.

The possibility for the German to leave Nigeria soon was very scant. Plus, in response to FRMF’s interest in him, Rohr has adamantly dismissed rumors around his future, strongly denying claims of talks with FRMF for a possible coaching contract in Morocco.

Blanc, who has not managed a team since he left France’s PSG football club in the summer of 2016, was the second priority. But for a coach who in recent months has rejected a pile of offers from top European clubs, taking on the African plunge that Morocco offered would have been surprising at best.

This left FRMF with Halilhodzic as its most viable option, its best shot to replace Renard, its charismatic and continentally revered now-former French coach, with a manager of similar caliber.

Halilhodzic was not in good terms with FC Nantes, the French club where he made his name in the 1970s and 1980s as a sterling forward and which he has managed since October of last year.

Plus, news that he rescinded his contract with Nantes on Thursday, August 1, has reinforced the credibility of Al Ahdath Al Maghribia’s report that he has already come to an agreement with FRMF.

The 67-year-old Bosnian brings tested international experience (his coaching CV is impressive at both club and country levels) and well-trusted local insight (he is familiar with the Moroccan local league).

These are perhaps the two qualities which FRMF feels are needed to put together a squad that can put to rest the painful memories of successive might-have-beens in recent years, of last-minute sloppiness in the most crucial moments in major games.

Having managed Wydad Casablanca, the top Moroccan club, with which he won the African Champions League in 1997, the Bosnian boasts inside knowledge of the Moroccan League, which most Moroccans now think should be taken into account when considering players for a spot in the national squad.

But even as he brings coveted European expertise and additional inside knowledge of the Botola, as the Moroccan football league is called, Halilhodzic is hardly what most Moroccans fans asked or hoped for.

After the Egyptian fiasco at this year’s CAN, when a languid but resilient Beninese side got the best of the hyped but uninspired Moroccan Lions, there were resounding echoes, urgency-filled calls for a local coach, “a man of the country” as a possible alternative to replace Renard.

That mood was mostly a reaction to the standout story of this year’s CAN: the success of home coaches. 10 out of the 24 coaches at the continental showpiece in Egypt were locals, and most of the best performing teams came from that bundle.

From Algeria’ impressive attack-defense balance to Senegal’s free-flowing football, at times offensively intense and at others prodigiously physical, or even Ivory Coast’s promising display or Mali’s series of stellar performance despite an early exit, there was a sense that local coaches came to Egypt to show that they, too, can manage at the same level as the much-coveted foreign coaches. Algeria’s Djamel Belmadi and Senegal’s Aliou Cisse said as much in a joint post-match press conference after the final.

CAN 2019 felt, then, like the prelude of an exhilarating epoch for local coaches, so pervasive was the sentiment that it would precipitate the end of the dominance of “white wizards,” those glamorous and expensive foreign coaches seemingly paid to perform miracles with African teams. Across the continent, anything foreign—or European, or Western, to be precise—is always elevated, more revered. “No one is a prophet in their own land,” as the saying goes.

Critics have often quipped that African federations’ tendency to call on foreign managers is football’s way of catching up with the “white savior complex,” that laughable feeling among some Africans that expertise from home is never comparable to overseas experience.

“Belmadi and Cisse,” the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson said of the coaches of Algeria and Senegal, respectively, “feel like part of a new generation of coaches, Africans with significant European experience, who represent the future.”

This comment came after, early on in the same piece, Wilson had suggested that, seeing the kind of quality and cohesion that Senegal, Algeria, and other local heroes-managed sides put on display at the 2019 CAN, it felt “like a step in the right direction” to ditch foreign saviors in favor of local heroes.

As Morocco’s new, purported, Franco-Bosnian manager prepares to take up his new position and put on his first display with the Moroccan Lions against Burkina Faso in September as part of the qualifiers for the next Afcon, Moroccans who have been rooting for “a man of the country” are bound to feel betrayed, not listened to.

Like the proponents of the “white savior complex” idea, they may see in Halilhodzic’s appointment FRMF’s fixation on European expertise to help realize a Moroccan aspiration, or fix a national mess. While other great African football sides are taking the dish du jour, considering local catches, critics may point out, Morocco is still obsessed with the idea of a white wizard saviour.

In FRMF’s defense, however, the truth is much murkier. It was only after a steady diet of Moroccan coaches—Rachid Taoussi or Badou Zaki are the two names that readily come to mind—failed to fare as expected that FRMF called on Renard.

And now that Renard is gone, very few Moroccan coaches presently boast the kind of experience that FRMF is seeking.

Jamal Sellami, who won last year’s CHAN with the local Atlas Lions, and Mustapha Hadji, former Moroccan international and Morocco’s second coaching assistant under Renard, have been mentioned as possible alternatives.

From FRMF’s perspective, however, in football management as in any other corporation-like operating structure, it is much safer to hire the candidate with a proven record of success than one who promises to deliver when given the chance.

Of course, some, more inclined to patience, would have gone for the promising candidate. Their argument would be that, when given enough time and resources, a committed promising candidate can rebuild the squad and bring to the team a whole new esprit de corps.

But FRMF doesn’t have time; it can’t wait, so urging is the need for another adventure, another dream, especially after three years of relentless team-building and colossal investments “turned to dust” in a match Morocco was supposed to easily win. But whether the former Wydad coach can be the inspiration for that new dream is another question altogether.

Read also:‘ Spoiled’ Atlas Lions Coach Renard’s €120,000 Salary Failed to Buy Success