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May 28, 2014

History makers

African football's biggest fight on the global stage was for recognition. In 1966, the continent was so unhappy about what it saw as a snub from the game's administrators -- it was made to compete for a place at the World Cup against countries from Asia and Oceania -- that it boycotted the tournament completely. That was one way to show strength.

The other was on the pitch and it took two decades after the no-show for that to happen. In 1986, an African team advanced out of the group stage at a World Cup for the first time. It was only fitting that it was the same country who claimed Africa's first permanent spot at the tournament in 1970: Morocco.

In the 16 years between the Atlas Lions' first two World Cup appearances, they were crowned African champions once in 1976, finished as bronze medalists once in 1980 and were losing semifinalists in 1986. At first glance that would indicate a slight decline in form but it turned out to be more of a loss of luck because Morocco were in fine fettle during qualifying. They dismissed Sierra Leone 5-0 on aggregate, beat Malawi 2-0, Egypt 2-0 and Libya 3-1.

Their road to Mexico was as emphatic as Algeria's, who overcame Tunisia 7-1, but Morocco outshone their North African neighbours at the tournament. Algeria finished bottom of their group after two losses and a 1-1 draw which may sound only marginally less drab than Morocco's two goalless draws and one win but the numbers hide the tension.

Group F was locked tightly after four matches. Only two goals had been scored, one for Portugal in their victory over England and one for Poland in their win over Portugal. Poland led the group on three points while Morocco and Portugal, who were due to play each other, were level on two and England had just a point. All four teams had the opportunity to qualify for the knockouts.

Although Portugal were fancied over Morocco, their squad was rocked by scandal and unrest in the lead-up to the tournament. Antonio Veloso was suspended for doping and the rest of the players threatened a strike over money. Whether that proved enough of a distraction for them against an enthusiastic Moroccan side can only be judged on the fact that Morocco were leading 2-0 inside the first half and hour.

The third came courtesy of an assist from the man widely regarded as their player of the tournament. Mohamed Timoumi, African player of the year in 1985, received the ball on the left and timed his pass to Abdelkrim Merry perfectly. Portugal were certain of a flight home even though they managed a consolation goal.

Timoumi said the tournament was "a wonderful celebration of football -- an eternal dream for all players," but his most cherished memory was that it was a breakthrough for the African continent.

"The performance of the national team during this event was something which we will never forget. It will be remembered not only by Morocco, but also by Africa and the Arab world for the fact that the national team became the first national Arab-African team to advance to the second round of an international football tournament," he added.

"The amazing occurrence marked a huge breakthrough for Arab-African football, which until then had been nothing more than an extra on the international football stage."

Not only did Morocco advance to the round of 16 but they did so by topping their group. Ironically, that turned out to be a hindrance to them as they were paired with West Germany in the knockouts. Morocco were wary of the team they managed to score against in 1970 but who eventually beat them and opted to play defensively as much as possible.

They held West Germany at bay for long enough to be within three minutes of extra-time when Badou Zaki was breached for only the second time in the tournament. Lothar Matthäus was the man who inflicted defeated on Morocco but they could leave the tournament with their heads held high.

Not only had they broken new ground but their players had been acknowledged for the creative and cunning bunch they were.

Zaki, who only let in two goals in the four matches Morocco played, was named Africa's player of the year for 1986 and the team achieved legendary status that is the source of much nostalgia today.

Abdelaziz El Idrissi Bouderbala, one of the members of the squads knows it. "We had a great team and a quality coach. Having been seen as real outsiders by the media when we arrived in Mexico, we really caused an upset."