KO: 7pm (UK time) – Friday 12th June 2015
With North African football perhaps at its lowest ebb in over a decade, the separate issues that Morocco and Libya face on the field is perhaps a microcosm of what the region is going through right now off the field, as they look to put such events behind them in one big Maghreb melee in Agadir.
As Moroccan football became little other than a byword for political interference and hastily arranged hosting over the last year, it transpires that Morocco do in fact still play football. They have a stadium, they have a kit, they have players; just like a regular football team that actually participates in matches. We’re as surprised as you are.
Whilst Ebola was deemed a good enough excuse to leave CAF standing at the alter ahead of AFCON 2015, the attempts of Africa’s governing body to ban Morocco from the next few AFCONs have – like most of their disciplinary measures – failed to stick, meaning they will be in contention to compete in Gabon in two years time. And with Libya not affected by any sort of unlikely-to-spread health pandemic, the government seem to have decided that their arrival will not impact on their tourism for this month at least… (zing!)
Having not played a competitive football match since drawing 1-1 with Ivory Coast in October 2013 (African Nations Championship excluded), whether they can ramp themselves up to the intensity expected of them remains to be seen, as manager Badou Ezzaki prepares for his first proper match in charge since being appointed in 2014.
Very much a fresh start for Moroccan football, Ezzaki has reflected that in his squad selection, naming a fairly young and inexperienced squad for this local derby. Gone are the old guard of Marouane Chamakh, Younes Belhanda and Mbark Boussoufa; in come the likes of 21-year-old Lille midfield Sofiane Boufal. 19-year-old Lierse defender Ahmed El Messaoudi and – most intriguingly – 16-year-old AC Milan midfielder Hachim Mastour.
Whether Barcelona wonderkid Munir’s choosing of Spain over Morocco has influenced the Moroccan FA to pin down the youngsters at such an early age remains to be seen, but the kid without a Wikipedia page is a fascinating choice. Dubbed by the Milan hierarchy as the next big thing, he will take on the mantle of those before him in his country’s shirt, with the path of Moroccan attacking midfielders littered with the likes of Belhanda, Boussoufa and Abdelaziz Barrada.
It is not a total revamp, with star player Mehdi Benatia and 32-year-old veteran Houssine Kharja remaining in the squad, but it will no doubt take a while for these players to get used to eachother. And there will be no higher pressured stadium in Africa on Friday night than the Stade d’Agadir when Libya come to town….
With society practically on the brink of collapse in post-Gaddafi Libya, football will hardly be at the forefront of their minds right now. Having fully bailed on hosting AFCON 2017 and previously pulling out of 2013 hosting, they share more than just location with their opponents – only their refusal to host was with valid justification…
Javier Clemente was hired by the federation back in 2013 when things looked a little rosier, and to his credit has stayed on throughout all the bad things, in what has been a tough year or so for Libyan football on the field. Whilst the Arab Spring appeared to encourage them forward to better things, running Cameroon very close in 2014 World Cup qualifying, they have since returned to what is expected of them after being defeated by Rwanda in the preliminaries of AFCON 2015 qualifying.
Though it is somewhat of a battle to know who they have picked, it can be fairly predictably assumed that the majority of their players will be domestically-based, with the Libyan league in keeping with their Arab neighbours in its strength compared to the rest of the continent.
What we do know is that there will be no better place to be for atmosphere than Agadir on Friday night. Both teams in transition, they will have to find their feet quickly in front of the expectant crowd, both keen to get one over on their regional rivals and kickstart their new era.