Tuesday, January 18, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: January 19, 8:27 AM UK
Morocco ready to show northern soul
Just over a week from now, South Africa will attempt to derail Morocco for the third time in a decade. Next Friday, January 28, in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the hosts for the 2015 Africa Nations Cup (AFCON) will be decided. It's a two-horse race between South Africa and Morocco with the former in possession of the upper hand. Experience will hand the tournament to the south but in interests of fairness the continental championship should be played in the north.
South Africa's case to host AFCON writes itself: they have ten world-class stadiums that successfully hosted the world's biggest football tournament; they did so with almost no glitches and offered top-notch security and impressive facilities all round.
It is also a Mecca for sporting events, having also hosted a cricket and rugby World Cup, various other international tournaments and even AFCON in 1996. There's almost no argument that can be made against South Africa and it's not difficult to see why Morocco face an uphill battle in securing the bid, especially since they've been pipped at the post by South Africa before.
Morocco have long wanted to host a major tournament and have competed with South Africa on the biggest stage for that right, having bid for both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. At the turn of the millennium, the race for the 2006 World Cup was hotting up, particularly because there was expectation that an African country would finally be trusted to become FIFA-land for a month.
South Africa were particularly desperate for that African country to be them, as they tried to make a statement of progress in the youth of their democracy. A delegation, led by then sports minister Ngconde Balfour, travelled to Rabat with one of the items on their agenda being to persuade Morocco to withdraw, so that there would only be one African contender in the race.
The next year, Morocco sung the same tune when they went on the campaign trail in Nigeria. They wanted Africa to present a united front to FIFA, something that did not materialise. Both went to Zurich to present their bids and Morocco received just three votes in the opening round and were the first country to be eliminated. South Africa also lost out, with Germany trumping them in controversial fashion when New Zealand FIFA member Charlie Dempsey, who was instructed to vote for South Africa by the Oceania Football Confederation, abstained from voting at the last minute.
Two years later, the pair were back to bid again, this time with the assurance that an African country would be named as hosts. It turned out to be a true north versus south clash with Egypt, Morocco and South Africa the three countries that tussled for the tournament's hosting rights. It may have been sentiment, especially after the 2006 bidding process was exposed so embarrassingly and Nelson Mandela himself went to Zurich to ask for the extravaganza to be held in his home country, but Morocco were left high and dry again. They fared better, receiving 10 votes, compared to Egypt's none, but it was little consolation. Add to that their two failed bids for the 1994 and 1998 World Cups and Morocco really are the bridesmaids of bids.
Like the ever-hopeful also-rans, they're back and braving the prospect of being upstaged by South Africa again. Morocco are going to woo the Confederation of African Football (CAF) with at least four new stadiums, which may not match South Africa's World Cup theatres of dreams, but probably have more chance of being full for the tournament. The first of the new venues - the Stade de Marrakech - was opened in early January. It's a 45,000-seater, the second of its capacity in the city. It was inaugurated with two draws between Marrakech side KACM and Lyon and Wydad Casablanca and PSG and was attended by former national stars, including Ahmed Faras and Mustapha Hadji.
Hadji, in particular, feels that the emphasis on infrastructure is going to be the country's big selling point. He said that the new stadiums are the picture of advancement and show that Morocco have no reason to envy European countries. The extensive focus on security at the unveiling of the new venue in Marrakech is a sign of the country's commitment to reassuring football authorities that players and officials will be safe.
Hadji thinks the most important part of Morocco's bid will be that it will give them an opportunity to start forming a legacy, similar to the one that South Africa has already started to build on successfully. "Organising the AFCON will allow Moroccans to follow a big African competition and for Moroccan football to develop," he said. "The AFCON will lead to the professionalisation of our football, and this follows the strategies already put in place."
Morocco are putting forward a comprehensive package to support their bid and sports minister Moncef Belkhayat is confident that his country has done enough to secure hosting rights this time. "We have submitted a balanced file. A committee of CAF visited the Moroccan infrastructure and submitted a positive report."
The last time Morocco hosted the tournament was in 1988 and not only are they hungry to do so again, but they seem to have a proper plan in place. A neutral observer can only hope it comes off.