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May 16, 2014

World Cup 1970 - Morocco scare the giants

The 1970 World Cup contained two notable firsts; the first time the tournament was broadcast in colour and the first time an African team was guaranteed a place in the competition. After the 1966 boycott, FIFA set aside one spot solely for a representative from the CAF region which meant that African sides did not have to compete with Asian, Oceania or Europe as they had done in the past.

Of the 13 teams who applied, only Ghana -- who had finished second in the African Nations Cup -- were given a bye to the second round. Congo Kinshasa, then continental champions, did not take part in qualifying.

Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria and Ethiopia advanced to the next stage, where Morocco and Tunisia found themselves in a similar position to the one they were when competing to play at the 1962 World Cup. Both matches of their two-legged tie were goalless, and the decider, played at a neutral venue in France, was locked at 2-2. Penalty shootouts were still not used to settle matches so it went down to a coin toss, which Morocco won.

They then went into a third round and played against Nigeria and Sudan twice each, finishing top of the mini league to advance to the World Cup. Morocco had also been the best-performing African side at the 1962 qualifiers and even though years had passed between that and qualifying for 1970, their dominance on the continent was established.

- Moonda: Finding a place for Africa - Egypt: Egypt at the 1934 World Cup

“It was a great feeling because it was the first time Morocco had qualified for the World Cup. It was an amazing feeling,” recalled Allal Ben-Kassou, the goalkeeper who spent 13 years playing at international level and participated in three Olympic Games and the World Cup, in a video interview with FIFA.com.

But it was also daunting, especially when Morocco discovered they were in a pool with West Germany.

“If you don't have the confidence or self-belief you shouldn't really go. We were confident and not afraid, even though we had a difficult opening game. The German team of the 70s had a huge reputation and some of the biggest names in football like Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and the goalkeeper, Sepp Maier,” Ben-Kassou said.

“As far as we were concerned, we were representing Morocco and Africa so this was a game we had to treat with the utmost seriousness. It was going to be a difficult match but we wanted to try as hard as possible to get a result that would please us as well as the Moroccan fans.”

Morocco had already made a statement before the opening quarter of their match was complete -- Houmane Jarir slotted home after Maier failed to clear the ball. "Our first goal really shocked the Germans. Only God knows what they must have thought when we were in the lead,” striker Said Ghandi told the BBC.

It was at that point that Ben-Kassou knew his role would be even more important. “Honestly, we really didn’t think we could beat them. They attacked right from the beginning and I had to make quite a few important saves. Their whole attack seemed as though they would produce goals and after defending with your backs to the wall, your confidence can become fragile, but when we scored that all changed.

“Our confidence grew and we felt great but we had to keep focused and keep hold of our lead,” he said.

Ultimately, Morocco did not manage to do that, as they went on to lose 2-1. “No one likes losing but when you lose to one of the best football nations in the world, who at the time were playing some great football, 2-1 wasn’t such a bad result,” Ben-Kassou said.

Morocco were given a day off between that match and the game against Peru three days later, which was in danger of not going ahead because of an earthquake in the South American country. The downtime did the Atlas Lions no good, according to Ghandi, who suggested the team lost focus during the 3-0 defeat.

Morocco then held Bulgaria to a 1-1 draw five days later to exit the competition on something of a high. “We didn't qualify for the second round but we played some good football and showed the rest of the world that African football had to be taken seriously,” Ben-Kassou said. “We got a lot of recognition from everyone. When we arrived back home, there were thousands of fans waiting for us at the airport.”

Ben-Kassou lived to see Morocco play in three more World Cups before passing away in October 2013. And although Morocco will not be in Brazil this summer, they have paved the way for African teams to impress at the World Cup.