By Daniel Renjifo, CNN
(CNN) — More than a year after a fairytale performance at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, all eyes are still on Morocco’s national football team and its head coach Walid Regragui. And to up the stakes even more, they are one of the favorites to win this latest edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) kicking off January 13.
Regragui, 48, played for the national team from 2001 to 2009, including the last time Morocco reached the AFCON semifinals in 2004. Now he hopes that as a manager he can clinch the country’s first AFCON title in 48 years.
Regragui was named head coach just three months before the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and then led Morocco to a historic fourth-place finish – becoming widely regarded as a national hero.
CNN’s Larry Madowo spent time with Regragui during a training session at the Mohamed VI Football Complex in Rabat last November, to talk about managing expectations ahead of AFCON without letting go of ambitions.
The following interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Larry Madowo, CNN: Which one did you enjoy more: playing or coaching?
Walid Regragui: Playing, of course. This is what I keep telling my players. For me, the best job in the world is being a young professional footballer, and more so if you play to represent your country. Unfortunately, we only realize that at the end of our careers. And coaching? Well, that’s another job.
LM: What made you decide or agree to come back to support the Moroccan national team?
WR: I didn’t decide; it happened. I had just won the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champion’s League with Wydad AC, so my goal was to play in the Club World Cup, maybe dream of coaching in Europe one day, so it was an evolution of my career. The national team was to come perhaps much later.
Then came the decision at the federation to change coaches. I think today everyone thought it was an easy challenge, but it wasn’t. I think that only a crazy coach like me would accept this job three months before the World Cup. No European coach would’ve taken on the national team, and I don’t think there is a local coach who dared to take on the challenge.
LM: Let’s go back to the World Cup. Did you think the team was going to go as far as it did?
WR: It would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that we thought we could make it to the semi-final or even dream of being able to win the World Cup. At the end of the first round, we dreamed of at least equaling what our elders had done in ‘86, that is to say, bringing Morocco back to the Round of 16. But why not dream of putting on a great performance?
That really got inside the heads of the players as soon as I took office. We set out with ambition. And it’s true that after having passed the first round at that time, we said to ourselves that we were capable of doing better and why not go and win the World Cup?
LM: And in the World Cup in Qatar, a lot of the African players were coached by homegrown coaches for the first time. Do you think that speaks about the quality of the coaching coming out of the African continent?
WR: That’s a very good question, and there are different ways to answer: Is there a generation of African coaches who have reached a very good level, and have finally been given their chance? Or is it that African leaders realized that there were quality managers in their country all along, who could take over the national team and be the equivalent of European or South American coaches? I think the quality of the coaches has always been there.
Today we have passed the threshold in Africa of saying that we need to bring back a foreigner to succeed. We showed that we could take our teams to a very high level, whether it was me, [Senegal’s] Aliou Cissé or other coaches. I believe there will be a “before-and-after” this World Cup in Qatar.
LM: Let’s go back to that quarterfinal game against Portugal. What’s going through your mind and what did that victory mean for you and for Morocco?
WR: Our objective as a staff was to figure out why we couldn’t get past this glass ceiling, this barrier that African countries couldn’t reach the semi-final. Maybe it was mental. We had prepared well, but we knew we had Portugal. It was one of the best teams in the world with Cristiano Ronaldo, but we were ready.
I think the players proved it on the pitch, proved that Morocco and that Africa was capable. And that helped the players, it boosted their confidence to seize the opportunity.
LM: Morocco has not won the Africa Cup of Nations since 1976. How do you think you’ll do in the competition?
WR: We have important goals. In this training center [Mohamed VI Football Complex] there is a photograph of the national team which were the last winners of the African Cup in 1976. Every day when the players come here, they look at the photo and get inspired. My goal as a coach is not to remove this photo but it is to put a new photo of the next winners here.
LM: You were recognized as Africa’s “Coach of the Year” at the Confederation of African Football awards last December. What does that mean to you?
WR: These are not things I’m very interested in. What interests me most is my team.
Today many individual trophies are awarded, either CAF, Ballon d’Or or FIFA Awards. It is nice to see Africans like myself at these awards, but because it enhances the continent, and most of all, it enhances the Moroccan football landscape.
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