Mehdi Benatia, one of the key men for Morocco during this productive qualifying campaign, has stressed his desire to put in a strong showing at the final tournament, under the guidance of Herve Renard, who is accustomed to success at this level, having steered Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire to continental glory in 2012 and 2015 respectively.
“We’re heading to Gabon to represent Morocco as best we can and to go as far as possible. All of the competing teams will have their eye on the title, and we would be very proud to win it. Without that kind of mindset, you’d be better off just staying at home.”
The winners of the upcoming Cup of Nations will qualify for the FIFA Confederations Cup 2017, which should increase the level of competition between the teams, any one of whom would be delighted to gain a sneak peak of certain 2018 FIFA World Cup™ stadiums one year prior to the big kick-off.
“We’d really like to take part in the 2017 Confederations Cup, which is a very prestigious event,” said the French-born centre-back. “But as I explained earlier, we have to be realistic and take each match as it comes. We’re going to try to go as far as we can in the Cup of Nations, and then we’ll see what happens.”
Morocco have not appeared on the World Cup stage since France 1998, when Benatia was just 11 years old. Today, as one of the national team’s biggest names, he carries the football dreams of the entire country. “It’s understandable that people back home are dreaming of qualifying for the World Cup. I would be so proud to represent our country in Russia and bring a smile to the faces of our fans. But the road is long and difficult,” he explained.
I would love to lead Morocco at such a high-profile event. That’s something our supporters have demanded.
Mehdi Benatia, Morocco defender on his side's desire to reach Russia.
As they do at every national-team gathering, the Moroccan players have recently been discussing this lofty objective. “We’ve been talking about the World Cup for a long time,” Benatia confirmed. “But we’re currently very focused on our next few matches, so we’ve put all Russia 2018 talk to one side until the start of our qualifying campaign at the end of the year.”
The talented Moroccan may have played for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, but participating in a World Cup still remains one of his major aims. “As a professional, I hope to play in the World Cup one day,” said the Bayern Munich star. “I play for an illustrious club, and I would love to lead Morocco at such a high-profile event. That’s something our supporters have demanded, and if we were to get there, every Moroccan would be over the moon.”
On 24 June, all African football fans will likely turn their eyes towards Cairo for the draw for the third round of African qualifying for Russia 2018. Deep down, every player has certain opponents that he would secretly prefer to face or to avoid. Benatia, who has a Moroccan father and an Algerian mother, is no different.
“The teams in neighbouring countries are pretty good,” he said. “Algeria and Tunisia have strong sides and everyone knows how great Egypt are. We respect everyone but fear no one. I don’t necessarily want to avoid anyone, but like any player, I’d like the draw to be kind to us. It would be nice to not have to play some of the continental heavyweights, but I should repeat that we’re not afraid of anyone.”
“Now I use my experience to guide my team-mates on the field and to bring something extra to matches. I don’t wear the captain’s armband, but that doesn’t stop me from giving advice to everyone, so that the team makes progress and that we go as far as possible in future