Morocco owe debt to Big Jack
They failed to qualify for the previous four World Cups, but Morocco head to Russia 2018 hopeful of upsetting Spain and Portugal. The reason? International football’s finest recruitment drive since Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland
I f Morocco have got one thing on their side this summer, it’s momentum. Over the past 18 months, the North Africans have hosted and won the African Nations Championship, embarked on a 15-match unbeaten streak (still ongoing at the time of writing) and watched domestic club champions Wydad Casablanca win the 2017 CAF Champions League. By Moroccan standards, this is something of a golden age.
Much of this success can be traced back to just one man: Nasser Larguet. No, he’s not one of the team’s star players, or even a member of the coaching staff. He’s the technical director of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FMRF), and the 59-year-old French-moroccan has played an essential role in identifying youngsters from both the diaspora and domestic leagues, bolstering Moroccan national sides at all levels.
If that doesn’t seem like particularly important work, consider this – a staggering 20 of the 27 players selected by Morocco for their recent friendly victories away in Serbia and at home to Uzbekistan were born outside the country.
Prior to Larguet’s appointment near the end of 2014, the Moroccan federation was largely reliant on an ecosystem of agents who could pull strings and influence players. Now the FMRF employs a scouting system that detects young Europeans with Moroccan lineage before
they get called up by the country of their birth. It’s allowed the Atlas Lions to pick from a much wider pool of talent, and is now starting to pay huge dividends.
“We work with four scouts who will recommend players to us in the diaspora,” Larguet tells Fourfourtwo. “We have one in Belgium, one in France, one in Spain and one in the Netherlands. When I arrived, two of our four scouts were already working for the Moroccan federation, but we reorganised and expanded our network.”
In the four years Larguet has worked with the FMRF, he has helped to recruit a long list of skilful players who have been instrumental in ending Morocco’s 20-year wait for a fifth World Cup finals appearance. After a starlet declares a willingness to pledge their allegiance to the North African nation, a visit is promptly arranged between the player, their family and the federation.
“We always fix a rendezvous with the player and his family,” reveals Larguet. “I’ve conducted dozens of these interviews over the last few years. We discuss our philosophy, and how we believe we can help the player fulfil his potential.”
Larguet cites rookie Real Madrid full-back Achraf Hakimi as a prime example. The Madrid-born 19-year-old played regularly for Los Blancos in the first half of 2017-18, securing him a spot in the Morocco squad ahead of their jaunt to Russia.
“We scouted Hakimi when he was playing for Madrid’s Under-17s,” explains Larguet. “He was constantly in touch with our scouts, asking when our next training camp or match was. When Spain finally called him up, we asked him to make a final decision. He decided on Morocco because I had personally promised that if he continued to work as he had, he would soon join the senior team.”
When someone from the diaspora, such as Hakimi, wishes to switch nations, a letter of intention must first be submitted to FIFA.
“It’s a fairly simple procedure,” continues Larguet. “The letter has to come from the player himself. We can’t do anything on that front and would never put any pressure on them. FIFA will generally then grant the switch and they can play for us.”
Many of Morocco’s biggest names have gone through this process, including Juventus defender Medhi Benatia (born in France) and Ajax’s attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech (the Netherlands). The suggestion is that Benatia’s conversion to Morocco, and his subsequent success at club level, have been particularly influential in swaying youngsters in the diaspora, like Hakimi and Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal.
However, the model hasn’t always worked to Morocco’s advantage. Barcelona forward Munir El Haddadi was born in Madrid to a Moroccan father and Spanish mother, but was perhaps cynically handed a first Spain cap at 18 before Morocco had a chance to swoop in.
He played the final 13 minutes of a Euro 2016 qualifier at home to Macedonia, effectively ending his eligibility with Morocco, and hasn’t featured for La Roja since.
Larguet and the Moroccan federation are now leading the charge in pushing for a change in legislation, which would allow capped players to switch countries if they have turned out for their original national team on only one occasion.
After FIFA refused Munir’s appeal to switch to Morocco, Larguet and the FMRF took the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. “It would be unfortunate if someone loses their eligibility after only playing 15 or 20 minutes for another team,” he sighs.
Though he acknowledges that chasing players in the diaspora isn’t a sustainable strategy, Larguet admits the policy may be temporarily effective until the Moroccan league can produce people good enough to impress at a European level once again.
“Not too long ago there were a lot of Moroccan-born players, such as Youssef Chippo and Noureddine Naybet, who started here first, did well and then left to go to Europe,” he continues. “Yet in the last 10 to 15 years we’ve stopped forming our own talent.
“The Moroccan players from the diaspora who play in Europe have a full footballing education, starting at around six or seven years old until they are full professionals. For the moment, the players currently in Europe are impressing.”
December’s World Cup draw placed the Atlas Lions in a challenging group with Spain, Portugal and Iran, but Larguet has no doubt that his country’s diverse squad can defy the odds by reaching the knockout stages. This is, he insists, a squad united – there is no divide between the players born in Morocco and those born in Europe.
“What’s important is feeling Moroccan in your head and also in your heart,” he says. “It’s an advantage to be able to call on different kinds of players. The kid born in the Netherlands has his own culture, as does the kid born in Spain, France, Belgium and Morocco. When all of these flavours combine well, Morocco wins.”
People from different backgrounds working together in peace and harmony, and collectively feeling the benefit? It’ll never catch on...
“PLAYERS FROM THE DIASPORA In EUROPE HAVE A FULL FOOTBALLING EDUCATION – WHAT’S IMPORTANT IS FEELING MOROCCAN In YOUR HEAD AND ALSO In YOUR HEART”