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

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Maher Mezahi

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”

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