When Morocco step out against Tanzania for their 2023 Africa Cup of Nations opener on 17 January, it will be exactly 13 months since they rounded off a historic run at the 2022 World Cup with a third-place play-off defeat against Croatia.
Breaking new ground as the first African team to reach the World Cup semi-finals means the Atlas Lions find themselves firmly among the favourites for Afcon glory in Ivory Coast.
The North Africans are chasing a first continental title since 1976 but, after many false dawns over the past 48 years, there is genuine belief that Morocco captain Romain Saiss could emulate legendary skipper Ahmed Faras and take the trophy back to Rabat.
“When you reach a level that is really high, we know we have to keep this kind of standard.
“Of course something has changed [in terms of expectations].
“Obviously it will be difficult to reach the semi-final of every competition, but we have to keep this level and help football in Morocco to keep growing.
“It doesn’t feel like pressure, more like a responsibility. We’ve had a taste and now we want more.”
Everything you need to know about Afcon 2023
Walid Regragui’s side are 13th in the world rankings, but former Wolves defender Saiss insists their status as the top African nation does not necessarily make them the leading contenders to win the Afcon title on 11 February.
Morocco, who will also play DR Congo and Zambia in Group F, have not reached the final since 2004, when they lost 2-1 to Tunisia., external
“From my point of view, we are not the favourites,” centre-back Saiss says.
“I understand why people say that but none of us [players] were born the last time Morocco won the tournament and our coach was playing when we last made it to the final.
“I think Ivory Coast will have the pressure because they are playing at home. There are a lot of dangerous teams with great experience too, like Senegal, Cameroon, Algeria and Egypt.
“You can see now in Africa that every game is difficult, anything can happen. It’s going be a tough competition and we need to be ready mentally to go as far as possible.
“I think this is going to be one of the hardest [tournaments] in history.”
Living up to expectations
Morocco players celebrate after reaching the semi-finals of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar
Morocco’s run to the World Cup semi-finals in Qatar saw them replace Senegal as Africa’s top-ranked team
Morocco have, in recent memory, been one of Afcon’s most consistent underperformers.
They failed to make it past the group stage across five tournaments between 2006 and 2013, and in the past three editions have been eliminated twice in the quarter-finals by Egypt and once in the last 16 by Benin.
Saiss played in each of those three knockout stage exits and insists he and the squad are better prepared this time for the unpredictable nature of the competition.
Group opponents Zambia remarkably triumphed at Afcon in 2012, demonstrating that a winner could come from the ranks of outsiders.
“I think it has been a weakness before, that in some games when we were supposed to be the favourite it was more difficult for us,” said 33-year-old Saiss, who is currently playing for Saudi Pro League club Al-Shabab.
“We know everyone is waiting for us and wants to beat us, but we can achieve something great.
“It doesn’t matter the opponent – it is important for us to be focused for every game and not think about the next round. It will be a huge mistake if we do that. The main target at the moment is to get out of the group.
“We need to be ready to suffer because it’s going to be tough. At the World Cup we went far because everyone sacrificed his body to reach the semi-finals.”
Morocco’s shock progress to the last four in Qatar was aided hugely by their backline, with Saiss marshalling his defence supremely to record clean sheets against Croatia, Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
Goalkeeper Bono (now also in Saudi Arabia, with Al Hilal), right-back Achraf Hakimi (Paris St-Germain), left-back Noussair Mazraoui (Bayern Munich) and centre-back Nayef Aguerd (West Ham) were generally selected alongside the captain, who is hoping the Atlas Lions’ defensive solidity continues at Afcon.
“I have a good partnership with Nayef because I have known him for many years and have seen him grow,” Saiss said.
“We have a very good relationship outside of football and that’s important for me. We talk a lot about situations during games and try to improve our partnership.
“There’s just this communication and trust.
“The [whole] team was working hard [at the World Cup] to defend too, to get behind the ball. It helped us and we can see how it’s important to not concede goals in big tournaments.
“I think this is the identity of the team. If we stay solid, we can go really far in the competition.”
A ‘big brother’ in the dugout
Romain Saiss speaks to Morocco coach Walid Regragui at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar
Saiss says he could follow Morocco coach Walid Regragui (right) into the dugout when he retires from playing
Saiss is also keen to highlight the role of Atlas Lions coach Regragui in Morocco’s recent success, praising the work that has been done to bring the team together.
“He is someone who is really close to the players,” Saiss said.
“He is not just friendly with the leaders of the team. From the youngest to the oldest, he is close to all of them.
“He’s like a big brother or an uncle and he gives you a lot of trust. He is really honest with the players and I think this is really hard to find in football.
“He always finds the right words to motivate the team and it creates something really important between the players and the staff – you know everyone is going the same way, working hard. We are happy to fight on the pitch.”
The country has invested heavily in footballing infrastructure and, after five failed attempts, Morocco were announced as co-hosts of the 2030 World Cup alongside Portugal and Spain.
While Saiss was delighted to hear the news, he will be 40 by the time the tournament arrives in North Africa for the first time.
But as the defender considers what comes next after his playing career ends, is there any chance he could be in the Atlas Lions dugout in 2030?
“It could be,” Saiss smiles.
“I’m asking myself what I want to do after football and, honestly, I don’t know. I have this passion for football and I can easily watch five or six games a day – that’s no problem for me because I just love this sport and it’s a big part of my life.
“I’m really interested in coaching and tactics. That’s why I like having a good relationship with my coach because I enjoy trying to understand new things and learn.”
Saiss’ international swansong may well come at the next Africa Cup of Nations, which will be staged in Morocco in 2025.
For now, he and his team-mates are focused on ending the side’s long Afcon drought and ensuring they go into the 2025 tournament on home soil as continental champions.