Can Belhanda become Morocco's key player to end drought?
Morocco’s woeful performances at the African Cup of Nations have stretched from a solid spell in the late 1980s until last year
Morocco has turned towards arguably the best international coach on the continent in this decade. Herve Renard, a two-time African Cup of Nations winner as coach of Zambia and Ivory Coast, is tasked with navigating the Atlas Lions out of a near two-decade-long wait to qualify for a World Cup and turnaround the country’s reputation as a basket case at this level.
Losing finalists in 2004, Morocco’s woeful performances at the African Cup of Nations have stretched from a solid spell in the late 1980s until last year when the team was booted out by CAF, the continent’s governing association. With the some of the best infrastructure in Africa and a consistent streak of developing good talent, Morocco’s underachievement at international level is something of a mystery. The last time the country qualified for the FIFA World Cup was in 1998 when the Atlas Lions rose to 10th in the FIFA Rankings.
It’s put into context when you consider successes like Renard’s Zambia in 2012 and that of Zaire and Morocco in the 1970s. Renard has been given the seal of approval by Bayern Munich defender Mehdi Benatia, the country’s most high-profile player.
Younes Belhanda, capped 31 times in his career, is equally delighted with Renard’s appointment as he turns his career around at Bundesliga side Schalke. Since joining on a short-term loan from Dynamo Kyiv, Belhanda has made a positive impression, scoring two goals and featuring in eight of nine league games in the second chunk of the season.
If Belhanda maintains his current performances, he’ll be a pivotal player in Renard’s plans. “His experience will be a great asset for Morocco,” Belhanda told the French Football magazine in March. “He has already proven himself with the Ivory Coast and Zambia. In Africa, he’s really a connoisseur of the continent. If we don’t give everything on the pitch, then we’ll go nowhere. It’s time for the players to wake up,” he said.
Long-term future in Germany?
“When Schalke knocked at the door, I didn't take long to make my mind up," he said upon arrival at the winter training camp in the United States. Following two successful seasons in Ukraine amid the start of political upheaval in the region, Belhanda lost his place in the team and decided on a fresh challenge.
Reports claimed the midfielder, who scored 12 goals in Montpellier’s championship-winning season, was being courted by Lyon and Marseille. Those deals never quite came to fruition and Schalke moved fast to bolster their attacking options early in the winter break.
"I was fired up and motivated to try and complete the move. It's always been a dream of mine to play in the Bundesliga. To be able to play for such a big club like S04 is obviously a huge bonus,” added the Moroccan, whose contract at Schalke doesn’t include a buyout option.
But Belhanda has noted several times in the German media that he wants to stay long-term. Head coach Andre Breitenreiter was thrilled at Belhanda’s start, but spoke publicly about a week of poor training before he turned in his best performances of the half-season so far with young starlet Leroy Sane dropping out of form.
He scored both his league goals in the space of a week. His equaliser at Mainz managed to earn Schalke a point against the league’s surprise team, while a week later, he scored at home for the first time against Stuttgart - and celebrated with his customary summersault. “I’ve been doing them since I was 12,” he said post-match. “Thankfully, none of the managers have told me to stop.”
If Belhanda is still flipping throughout the season, then he’s doing something right. For Schalke, his goals are welcome as the Royal Blues go through a period of average form with a place in the Champions League at stake. A regular, on-form Belhanda in one of Europe’s top five leagues, though, will be a prized asset for Morocco as Renard prepares to launch his new era at the end of the month.