Raja earn place in history

Posted by Firdose Moonda

Raja Casablanca Kouko Guehi celebGettyImagesKouko Guehi was Raja Casablanca's hero.

Moroccans would not have needed the head of football's governing body to tell them but he did anyway. "Raja has entered history," Sepp Blatter said after the club beat Mexican side Monterrey to qualify for the semifinals of the Club World Cup this week.

At that stage they were the first North African team to reach the final four of the tournament. Now, by beating Atletico Mineiro 3-1, they have made more history by becoming only the second team in whole of Africa to play in the final of the competition. Surely they are the most surprising.

When TP Mazembe, the flag-bearers for the Republic of Congo, reached the final in 2010, they did it as African club champions. Raja Casablanca have done it as hosts. Al-Ahly, the participants representing the continent because of their victory in the CAF Champions League, crashed out in the quarterfinals to Guangzhou and were routed 5-1 by Monterrey in the fifth-place match.

Had Morocco not been staging the tournament -- the first time it has been played on African soil -- that would have been the end of the continent's hopes this year. Very few expected Raja to put up much of a fight. They sacked their coach Mohamed Fakhir two weeks before the start of the competition, in the midst of a run of poor form which has them currently sitting in eighth position in the league. Described as a club of "average players" by many, they had only a glorious domestic reputation behind them.

Raja are no small fry; they are 11-time Moroccan league champions, with three of their triumphs coming in the last four years. They play an attacking, positive brand of football that has remained attractive to watch -- and was first seen and praised by the likes of Vicente del Bosque and Marcello Lippi at the Club World Cup 13 years ago.

The style has not changed much since. After their injury-time goal against Auckland City which saw them qualify for the last eight, Raja played an entertaining game against Monterrey, in which they again won in the final moments. Their goalkeeper, Khalid Askri, put in several athletic saves but it was the number of chances they created, and Ivorian Kouko Guehi's added-time winner, that the match will be remembered for.

The Moroccans also left it late in the semi. They scored twice in the last 10 minutes -- once through a controversial penalty -- to earn a place in the final. In beating Atletico Mineiro, Raja dumped two-time FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldinho out of the competition. He left by handing his shirt to Guehi before he was stripped of his boots by souvenir-hunting players eager for a piece of history. All the while Raja's fans handed the Brazilian a raucous, but ultimately warm, farewell.

Raja's home supporters will remain the most endearing image of this competition. They lined the streets as the team bus, carrying a squad of singing players, drove out of the stadium on Wednesday evening and greeted them with song when they disembarked. Across the country, tens of thousands of people, even those who are supporters of other clubs, partied.

On YouTube, videos were uploaded of Moroccan expats in Brussels celebrating the win in a public square. Hassan Samrhouni, a former player of Wydad Casablanca, the archrivals of Raja, and president of the Washington Athletic club, had a positive message from across the Atlantic. "I felt honored and proud to be Moroccan tonight when I saw how Fox Sport journalists were talking about Raja's players and praising the beautiful way in which they defeated Ronaldinho's teammates," he told morocconews.com.

The team have acknowledged the buoyancy their home fans have given them. "It's like having the whole of Morocco behind us. You can achieve the most amazing things with support like that," Chemseddine Chtibi, who scored in the quarterfinals, told FIFA.com. And they've promised to give their all against Bayern Munich in the final.

Raja were considered fortunate to earn a place in the Club World Cup, but there was more skill than luck involved in their road to the final. Because of the stature of their opposition, there may be very little expectations placed on Morocco's men, who could be told to simply soak up the occasion against Bayern. The Germans will take them lightly at their peril, though. Raja have already sprung two surprises in this competition, and one more may not be beyond their reach.


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