It was a scorching, bright Saturday in Morocco when the bomb dropped. It was devastating, destructive, and could potentially destroy the dynasty Morocco built.
“The player who refuses to train, who refuses to play, who fakes injuries, for me it is a finished story,” Vahid Halilhodzic shrugged. It could spell the end of their time with the Morocco national team for Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech and Ajax wingback Noussair Mazraoui.
It flies in the faces of the plaudits and titles the duo earned. Mazraoui is on track to win his third Eredivisie, and Ziyech is cementing himself as one of England’s most elite attackers. Yet Halilhodzic is willing to sacrifice the star power and talent that could make his squad unstoppable to uphold his strict disciplinary code. His actions hit at his readiness to sacrifice his job for near-perfect order.
For some time, the relationship between Halilhodzic and the Maghreb was seamless. After Herve Renard resigned from the Atlas Lions, Halilhodzic eased Morocco into somewhat of a golden era. Under the Bosnian manager, Morocco breezed into the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations. They cemented themselves as a team to beat and won friendlies against Senegal, Ghana, and Burkina Faso.
It was a similar story in World Cup qualification. Morocco won all six group-stage games, scoring 20 combined goals over Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Sudan while only conceding one. Part of his success was his insistence on teamwork and unity. He lessened the load on Morocco’s stars like Youssef En-Nesyri and Achraf Hakimi and gave others chances to score.
A positive atmosphere surrounded Morocco as Halilhodzic eased the famed nation to the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations and into the third round of Africa’s World Cup qualification tournament. You could not find any controversy about Halilhodzic surrounding Casablanca. Yet some in Amsterdam had a bone to pick with him.
Qualms and quagmires
When Halilhodzic made Morocco one of Africa’s heavyweight, a wizard winning games in the Netherlands made Ajax one of Europe’s elite. Born in the Netherlands, Hakim Ziyech elected to play for the country of his parents, Morocco, under previous Morocco manager Herve Renard. The Ajax winger was one of the core parts of a disappointing Atlas Lions squad and netted 15 times for his homeland.
Things went smoothly for a short time with Halilhodzic. He provided an added lethality to an already-dangerous Morocco squad, creating space for others and overwhelming defenders. Ziyech scored twice and assisted once against the Central African Republic in front of a charged Casablanca crowd. Four days later, he scored once and assisted another goal against the same Central African Republic side in Douala.
The sky was the limit for The Wizard. Yet his hot form coincided with a down season at his new club Chelsea, and injuries disrupted an almost-perfect tenure for Morocco. A storm of bad luck seemed to cascade down in early September, with eye-grabbing headlines featuring the Atlas Lions. A rift separating Halilhodzic from Ziyech emerged, bringing the first signs of trouble in the manager’s tenure. The outside world is left to speculate on locker room feuds, but some quotes could hint at a possible cause.
“The medical staff made several examinations and said he could play. He then refused to warm up in the second half because he was disappointed to be a substitute. For me, that type of behavior is unacceptable. You cannot cheat with the national team. You are 100% there or you are not,” Halilhodzic said of his decision to exclude superstar Hakim Ziyech from the national team.
Ziyech had something to say on Halilhodzic’s claims. “Next time when you speak, SPEAK THE TRUTH THEN…,” Ziyech posted to his Instagram story, followed by a clown emoji soon after Halilhodzic’s interview. The feud was alive, and although it thrived in the shadows, the atmosphere around Rabat changed. They breezed to the third round of the World Cup and, without their biggest European stars, enjoyed moderate success in the Arab Cup. Although they could not overcome eventual champions Algeria in a tight 2(3)-2(5) loss, their elimination was not too bad.
With En-Nesyri, Hakimi, and Sevilla stopper Bono all thriving and the Atlas Lions still winning, the absence of Ziyech did not hurt too much. Halilhodzic was still on track to be one of Morocco’s best managers, and with a ticket to Qatar in Morocco’s grasps, hope still blessed the Maghreb.
Yet another muddle awaited Halilhodzic.
A water bottle?
When Peter Munnelly, a writer for ScoutedFtbl, checked out Ajax prodigy Noussair Mazraoui, one of the first words he used to describe the Dutch-born wingback was ever-present.
“Mazraoui has been ever-present throughout the shift in attacking formula under Erik ten Hag, so there is little surprise that he understands how to move and position himself pretty fluently,” Munnelly wrote. His stats back up Munnelly’s claims. His five goals are the most scored in this edition of the Eredivisie by a wingback, and his excellent passing qualities also boost his passing stats.
Under normal circumstances, Mazraoui would fit right at home under Halilhodzic. Although Hakimi could take the starting right-back spot from him, he is still a great left-back and right midfielder. His versatility, previous experience under Renard, and shortage of players due to coronavirus-related absences meant he would be a perfect fit.
Yet Mazraoui had not suited up in the rich colours of the Moroccan red for at least a year. Another instance of disciplinary issues prevented what could be one of the most explosive pairings of wingbacks Africa could witness, and Mazraoui was still miffed over it.
“Ajax did not let me go for selection, but Morocco wanted me to come because they had arranged everything well. They said I had to come and even sent Ajax a letter and email. Yet if you do not show up, they can suspend you. In the end, Ajax gave their approval three or four days later. I was a little pissed off because I was supposed to have a few days off, and I had done my schedule. But it was no longer possible, so I went to Morocco. So I arrived three or four days late,” Mazraoui explained.
Elaborating, Mazraoui told Andy van der Mayde about their argument in training.
The coach was pissed off, but I did not know that. I went to train, and it was hot so we had a refreshment break every five minutes. At one point, I was no longer thirsty, so I did not drink. Then the coach came and said: ‘you have to drink’. I said: ‘I am not thirsty, coach’ very politely. He wanted to force me to drink, but that does not make sense. He insisted several times. So I politely responded at first, but then my tone got more aggressive.
He [Romain Saiss]wanted to calm everyone down. He threw me a bottle of water. I picked up the water bottle, opened it, poured some water on the floor, closed it, and threw it away because I was not thirsty. The coach then fired me and that was the start of this shit. We both were angry, and I said to him: “I came after three or four days, then you kicked me out in the first session. What am I doing here ?’ We had a conversation, and I thought it was settled on my end. But apparently, he still has a problem, and I have only come back once since.
What Mazraoui described as resistance, Halilhodzic labeled insolence. “He had refused to play,” the now under-fire coach grunted. Although how the Ajax star and Halilhodzic came to odds is disputed, the fact was now Morocco was missing two of their best stars going into a crucial make-or-break Africa Cup of Nations. Halilhodzic needed to prove that their outrageous victories meant something against a tough group of Gabon, Ghana, and sneaky underdogs Comoros.
At first, Morocco seemed an impenetrable force that could breeze to their second-ever Africa Cup of Nations championship. Angers striker Sofiane Boufal netted against Ghana to secure a vital victory, and a pair of goals helped lock in another two points against Comoros. Boufal returned to score from the penalty spot, and Hakimi netted in a 2-2 draw against Gabon, giving Morocco first place in their group.
Morocco suffered a quick scare in Malawi’s early goal in the knockout round. Their seventh-minute strike put Morocco in its first real predicament. Yet, in front of a tense Yaounde crowd, En-Nesyri finally scored. Hakimi put the Atlas Lions ahead in the second half to book a match against Egypt.
That was when Morocco’s story took a sharp turn. Although Boufal, clinical as always, converted a penalty within the first seven minutes, Egypt proved to be a hard team to handle. Multiple big chances later, Salah equalized in the 53rd minute, jeopardizing Morocco’s Africa Cup of Nations dream. One extra-time goal by Trezeguet later, and their time in Cameroon screeched to a stop.
With the backlash for banishing Ziyech and Mazraoui and the tense circumstances in Rabat, Halilhodzic lashed out in a highly-publicized tirade after Morocco’s elimination. “The Egyptian national team has always done things like that, did you see how many times did their goalkeeper fall during the game. I did not know Egyptians would be putting on a cinematic show like that. The referee’s performance shocked me as well. Multiple players deserved to be sent off with red cards,” Halilhodzic ranted.
He also dispelled any rumours of bringing Ziyech back to the national team in his rage. “He is not a player who can save a national team. I cannot call up a player who can destroy the spirit in the group, even if his name was Lionel Messi,” he stubbornly urged. Halilhodzic’s rage meant that Morocco’s World Cup playoff was vital to retaining his job. And he would be doing it without Ziyech.
Ziyech’s lost place in the national team spurred his eventual retirement decision. The Athletic reported his retirement from the Moroccan national team. What embarrassed Moroccan fans was that the winger was born in the Netherlands. His international retirement was a crushing loss for future generations, and Halilhodzic had blood on his hands.
And now, with Halilhodzic in charge of bringing Morocco to their sixth-ever World Cup, he would need to get a win and purge Morocco’s bad memories. If not, his job would be in danger.
Although World Cup is on the way, Halilhodzic still hated
Moroccans had every right to be nervous as Morocco battled to a 1-1 draw against DR Congo. Brentford’s Yoane Wissa quickly found the net through a floater outside the 18-yard box. Hearts sank in the Maghreb as Morocco struggled to find an equalizer. Time passed as Morocco spurned easy chances. When Ferencvaros forward Ryan Mmaee sent a penalty flying above the crossbar, even the players on the pitch found themselves frustrated and helpless. Morocco only salvaged a draw thanks to Tarik Tissoudali’s cannon that evaded the DR Congo defence. The game ended from a DR Congo defender’s ejection, something that could set them back a step in the second leg.
You could hear the raucous Rabat crowd sighing with relief as Angers midfielder Azzedine Ounahi blasted a shot following DR Congo’s failed clearance. Grateful murmurs turned to victorious roars as Tissoudali pounced on another failed clear and scored another goal just before half time. Ounahi and Tissoudali preyed on DR Congo’s porous defence with another score.
Before long, Rabat was howling with excitement. After Hakimi’s stunning goal, Morocco seemed set for their second-straight World Cup berth. After a consolation goal that did nothing to lessen DR Congo’s suffering, the result was official. Halilhodzic earned more time in Rabat, but not without drama, controversy, and a story for the ages.
Despite celebrations throughout Morocco, no one forgot Halilhodzic’s dispute with Ziyech and Mazraoui. Laurent Blanc and Rudi Garcia could be the ones prowling the touchline in Doha instead of Halilhodzic, and his recent quotes make that possibility even more likely. When asked about Ziyech and Mazraoui’s relationships with him, Halilhodzic called the saga a “finished story”. Instead of wrapping a bow on the problem, it only inflames Morocco’s anger towards the Bosnian and puts his job in even more danger.
It means that this summer is an important one for Halilhodzic. Despite his success as Morocco’s gaffer, his stubbornness could see him unemployed. According to Fouzi Lekjaa, the president of the Moroccan football federation, Halilhodzic “is not untouchable”.
It could all be an exaggerated account, rumors sparked by spite and greed, as Halilhodzic claims. “Who says that Morocco gave up on me? What the media writes is not true. Yes, the media writes everything, journalists write everything, and some money must be at stake.” But several reasons show Halilhodzic and his love-hate relationship with Morocco should be something to keep an eye on, especially as stress sharpens in the scorching Sahara.