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why Maghreb teams are struggling in sub-Saharan Africa

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why Maghreb teams are struggling in sub-Saharan Africa

Moroccan midfielder Younès Belhanda during the match against South Africa during the 2019 African Cup of Nations (CAN) in Egypt. JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

The organization of the thirty-fourth edition of the African Cup of Nations (CAN) in Côte d’Ivoire, from January 13 to February 11, is not, first, which bodes well for the four North African selections qualified for the final phase: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. While they shine at home, the Maghreb teams struggle to win south of the Sahara. Egypt was the last to have done so, in 2010, in Angola. The only other North African team to have won the cup away from home was Morocco, in 1976, in Ethiopia.

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If the Pharaohs are doing well – they also distinguished themselves in 1957 in Sudan, in 1998 in Burkina Faso and in 2008 in Ghana – it is above all because “the Egyptian national team has always been largely made up of players playing in their country in excellent clubs like Zamalek and Al-Ahly, underlines former international striker and Algerian coach Rabah Madjer.

Even the few Egyptian players who have emigrated to Europe, such as Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Omar Marmoush (Eintracht Frankfurt), Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal FC) or Mahmoud Hassan “Trézéguet” (Trabzonspor) made their professional debuts on the continent. “They are used to competing in African competitions and when they play with their selection, they are not out of place. The heat, the humidity, the difficult terrain, they know it very well! “, assures Rabah Madjer.

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Conversely, the squads of the Algerian, Moroccan and, to a lesser extent, Tunisian teams are mainly made up of binational players who have never played in a club in their country of origin. This is also the case for Senegal, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“It is obvious that our internationals who play at Espérance Tunis, Sfax or Etoile du Sahel are better able to adapt to the conditions found in sub-Saharan Africa. For someone like me, born in France, and where I played for eight years at the professional level, it’s more delicate”confides Naïm Sliti, the midfielder of the Carthage Eagles and Al-Ahli (Qatar).

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But the composition of the teams is not the only obstacle. The calendar of the competition, traditionally organized between the months of January and March, with the exception of the 2019 edition, contested in June and July in Egypt, does not favor North African players. “You come from Europe, where it can be very cold, to play a competition in a country where it is 30°C, with matches played in the middle of the afternoon, with high humidity… It’s very difficult to adapt in a few days”, resumes Rabah Madjer.

During the 1992 CAN in Senegal, the defending Algerians suffered greatly during their two matches in Ziguinchor. “For the first match against Ivory Coast (0-3), after thirty minutes, I was breathing very badly, my legs were cut, and I was not the only one in this situation. Besides, we were eliminated in the first round”continues the former Algerian international.

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Land quality

The final stages organized in sub-Saharan Africa did not leave a lasting memory for Abdeslam Ouaddou, the former defender of Morocco. Whether in Mali in 2002 or in Ghana six years later, the Atlas Lions had failed to get past the first round. “Yes, there are climate issues. But there is another explanation that must not be forgotten, that relating to land. In some sub-Saharan African countries, they are not always of good quality. North African footballers are renowned for their technical qualities, which favor a possession game. But when the pitch is not good, bumpy, dry or the grass is too high, it is almost impossible for a technical player to express his qualities.details the 2004 African vice-champion.

Abdeslam Ouaddou, while he does not want to minimize the chances of the four North African selections in Ivory Coast, believes that it will once again be difficult for them to compete with their opponents. “They will be opposed to teams who not only have technical arguments, but also athletic ones. However, in this area, the Arab teams are less equipped”explains the former defender.

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Although he is aware of the difficulties awaiting Tunisia like the other North African selections, Naïm Sliti wants to believe in a reversal of the trend observed since Egypt’s success in Angola in 2010. “The Confederation of African Football is more attentive to the quality of the pitches, the selections are better organized, so that the players are placed in the best possible conditions, in terms of competition preparation and nutrition. For example, we travel with our cook, with some of our food which comes from Tunisia, so as not to change our eating habits. » Details that the North African federations know are important, even if they offer no guarantee of victory on the field.

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