JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – It is 37 years since Morocco won the Africa Cup of Nations for the only time after drawing with Guinea in the final pool match of a tournament hosted by Ethiopia.
The closest the Atlas Lions have come since was finishing runners-up to hosts Tunisia nine years ago, and subsequent appearances at the showpiece of African football have brought only disappointment.
Morocco failed to win or even score en route to a 2006 first round exit and blasted five goals past Namibia a couple of years later only to make another early departure.
Losing again to Tunisia last year proved costly as they also went down to co-hosts Gabon and once more the Atlas Lions were flying home before the knock-out phase had even begun.
It was doubtful that they would make the 2013 tournament in South Africa after a 2-0 qualifying loss in Mozambique, but new coach Rachid Taoussi masterminded a dramatic turnaround with a 4-0 Marrakech triumph.
Taoussi succeeded Belgian Eric Gerets, who came to north-west Africa with an impressive CV, but battled to mould stars like Marouane Chamakh, Houssine Kharja and Adel Taarabt into a team capable of winning consistently.
None of the trio made the Johannesburg-bound squad with midfielder and former captain Kharja venting his anger after being excluded from Group A clashes with Angola, Cape Verde Islands and South Africa.
“I think Taoussi has lacked courage — during the past few months he has been very evasive with me, using excuses not to choose me such as the distance I must travel for matches.
“He then said he could not reach me on the phone before telling me he will not take me to the Africa Cup of Nations because I play in Qatar,” Kharja told reporters in Doha.
Taoussi, who guided Moghreb Fes to the CAF Confederation Cup last year and a surprise CAF Super Cup win over Tunisian club Esperance, believes the absence of the trio will not harm Moroccan chances of making an impact this year.
“I am happy with the draw and do not foresee any problems. The two teams to qualify from the group could be South Africa and us although Cape Verde eliminated Cameroon so they cannot be written off.”
The 53-year-old coach relishes challenges and admits they do not come any bigger than facing the host nation in a match where everybody will be against his Lions.
“We play Bafana Bafana last and that means we must do well in the first two matches against Angola and Cape Verde so that we are not under pressure before that final group game.”
Long-serving goalkeeper Nadir Lamyaghri has succeeded Kharja as captain, Mehdi Benatia is the defensive stalwart, Younes Belhanda the midfield conductor, and the strike force includes Liverpool fringe player Oussama Assaidi.