Morocco set new standards for African football just over 12 months ago at the Qatar World Cup but the pressure is now on to improve a dismal record in the Africa Cup of Nations, which kicks off on Saturday.
Morocco became the first Arab and African country to reach a World Cup semifinal in their thrilling run that captivated the continent but they are now expected to take that form into the Cup of Nations and expunge a record of consistent failure.
Morocco are one of 12 countries in the 24-team field who have had previous success in the continental championship but their only past triumph came almost a half century ago in 1976.
They have a long history since of crashing out unexpectedly when having been cast as favourites.
“It’s true the last World Cup finals has given us the experience of the big competitions but for us the reality is that the Cup of Nations is always a complicated tournament,” coach Walid Regragui told Reuters in the build-up.
“This is not the first time Morocco will arrive as favourite and a potential winner but, unfortunately, we have not managed to be regularly among the last four. It shows that despite the experience of the competitions, it is not a major factor to assure us of victory.”
There will many teams eager to scythe them down, particularly a strong challenge from hosts Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and holders Senegal.
Sadio Mane, who took last weekend off to get married, again headlines a Senegal side that, like Morocco, had success over Brazil in a friendly last year and is bristling with experience and talent.
They were deserved winners of the last Cup of Nations in Cameroon, albeit needing post-match penalties to overcome Egypt in the final.
The Ivorians will also be expected to go deep into the tournament, although often the burden of expectation from home supporters can weigh too heavily.
Egypt in 2006 were the last hosts to win the Cup of Nations, ironically on spot kicks over the Ivory Coast.
The Ivorians kick off proceedings in Saturday’s opening match in Group A against Guinea Bissau.
Nigeria’s squad is on paper among their best in years but recent results have been anything but impressive. In November lowly Lesotho held them away in a World Cup qualifier and they also lost last year at home to tiny Guinea Bissau.
Egypt, with Mohamed Salah again their talisman, and 2019 winners Algeria join Morocco in heading the challenge from Arabic-speaking north Africa, along with Tunisia who are making a record-extending 16th straight appearance at the finals.
Other past winners in this year’s field are Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Zambia, all of whom have potential to be spoilers.
The tournament is hosted in six different stadiums, four of which have been built for the finals.
There has been much focus on the condition of the pitches, which have bedevilled previous tournaments, with experts flown in from France to help ensure top playing surfaces.
Several senior government officials were sacked in September after a friendly between the Ivory Coast and Mali had to be abandoned because of a waterlogged pitch at the new Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan’s Ebimpe neighbourhood. The showcase venue is to host the opening match and final.
The tournament was originally scheduled for June last year but put back six months because of the fear of the impact of the rainy season and now falls again in the middle of the league season in Europe, to the consternation of many coaches.