Philip Barker

It is perhaps appropriate that Morocco should be the standard bearers for Africa in the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals against Portugal on Saturday.

Although Egypt were the first African team to take part in a final tournament when they played in 1934, Morocco were the first to do as automatic qualifiers from the continent when they participated in 1970.

It was not until a boycott of an entire World Cup cycle by African nations that FIFA were persuaded to give them an automatic place.

Previously, teams from Africa had been obliged to make their way through a complex inter-continental pathway.

Sixty years ago, six teams from Africa entered the World Cup and Morocco reached the last round of qualifiers for the finals in Chile.

But their way was blocked by the very nation they beat on penalties earlier this week.

Spain took a slender lead in the first leg in Casablanca thanks to a goal from Luis del Sol.

The second leg in Madrid proved an equally tight affair but the legendary Alfredo di Stefano scored one of the goals in a 3-2 win.

In 1964, FIFA set out the criteria for qualification for the 1966 World Cup tournament.

There were to be ten from Europe, including host nation England.

The four from South America included 1962 winners Brazil and a place was also allocated to the Central America.

The final place was allocated to the ultimate winner of a qualifying series from teams in Asia, Oceania and Africa.

Morocco defeated Spain on penalties this week to reach the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals for the first time ©Getty Images
Morocco defeated Spain on penalties this week to reach the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals for the first time ©Getty Images

In the preliminary round, Cameroon and Ghana were joined by Guinea and the Sudanese in one group.

Morocco were supposed to line up alongside Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Liberia and Mali.

Ethiopia, Gabon, Libya, Nigeria and the United Arab Republic were also drawn together.

Many African nations were not necessarily well disposed to FIFA.

The FIFA President at the time was English sports administrator Sir Stanley Rous.

He was a man of similar age to International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Avery Brundage and his attitude to South Africa in the Apartheid era was perceived by many as similarly laissez faire.

This was a position which was unsatisfactory for many representatives from Africa.

It was also a time when many African nations had become independent.

Football on the continent was flourishing and the African Cup of Nations had been established in 1957, before UEFA set up their European Championship.

It was also a time when Ghana had a strong team.

They had won the Cup of Nations in 1963 and had also qualified for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic football tournament.

The country's leading sporting official was Ohene Djan, a close ally of Ghana's President Kwame Nkrumah.

Djan had also become a member of FIFA's Executive Board.

He branded the qualification system as "pathetic and unsound" and was the author of telegrams "Registering strong objection to unfair World Cup treatment for Afro-Asian countries".

The cost of travelling to fulfil matches was another important factor for African officials.

Soon the Confederation of African Football (CAF) had despatched a letter to FIFA calling for an automatic place.

"We limit our demand, in the name of fair play and equity for one place of finalist to be to be granted to Africa," their memorandum said.

In order to make room for them in the 16-team tournament, there was a recommendation that Europe should have one place fewer.

The memo also carried a sting in its tale.

"In the absence of this necessary adjustment, African federations cannot for the considerations stated above, participate in the World Cup Jules Rimet Championships 1966."

When CAF met to discuss the problem, they resolved to "submit the matter to all those who have at heart, both in Africa and elsewhere, the cause of making of the World Championship a real world manifestation far from any exclusivism".

FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous declared himself
FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous declared himself "shocked" by the demand for an automatic place for Africa ©Getty Images

Soon, an official letter from Tunisia had arrived at the office of FIFA secretary Helmut Käser.

"We have just received a letter from Tunis telling FIFA that they will not participate in the World Cup for geographical and economic reasons," Käser wrote to Rous.

Ethiopian football official Yidnekatchew Tessema, a major figure in both CAF and FIFA, had also sent a communique informing the world governing body of a likely boycott.

Käser suggested that FIFA should hold their position.

"I do not think it would be a good solution to alter the decisions reached at the Zurich meeting even if some of Mr Tessema's arguments appear to be reasonable," Käser continued.

Rous admitted that "he would be very disappointed if this information was to be confirmed."

The boycott was indeed confirmed and no African team took part in the qualifying competition for 1966.

The African refuseniks were each fined CHF 5,000 (£4,362/$5,339/€5,058).

It was one of the great ironies of the 1966 tournament that the leading scorer was Portugal's star striker Eusebio, who had been born in Mozambique.

Even then, he was not the first African born player to finish top marksman. 

Just Fontaine scored 13 goals, still a record, for France in 1958 but he had been born in the Moroccan city of Marrakech.

Moroccan born Just Fontaine, centre, scored 13 goals for France in the 1958 World Cup ©Getty Images
Moroccan born Just Fontaine, centre, scored 13 goals for France in the 1958 World Cup ©Getty Images

Finally in 1968, at the FIFA Congress in the Mexican city of Guadalajara, the members voted to give the African continent an automatic place.

In their first match at the 1970 finals, Morocco scored first against eventual semi-finalists West Germany before losing.

They lost to Peru before a draw with Bulgaria gave them a happy memory with which to depart.

By the time they reappeared at the finals in 1986, Africa had been granted two representatives at the finals.

Morocco made it through to the second round that year with a 3-1 victory over Saturday's opponents Portugal in their final match.

They had also appeared in 1994,1998 and 2018 before their appearance this year.

The long struggle of African football for World Cup acceptance mirrors a similar picture in other sports a hundred years ago when the FIFA World Cup had not yet been established.

Morocco made their World Cup finals debut in 1970 ©Getty Images
Morocco made their World Cup finals debut in 1970 ©Getty Images

In 1922, the Olympic movement had become all too conscious that it was dominated by Europe.

Up to that point, the Games had been staged in Europe on all but one occasion.

The IOC President Baron Pierre De Coubertin had designed the Olympic symbol which consisted of five interlocking rings, designed to symbolise the five continents.

Before the first world war, he had encouraged regional Games in the far East and in 1922, the IOC gave its backing to Latin American Games, a multi-sport event held in Rio de Janeiro to coincide with the national centenary celebrations in Brazil.

Few from Africa had so far taken part in the Olympics but Coubertin soon published an appeal.

"Sport wants to conquer Africa," he wrote.

"The time has come to open the vast continent which has not yet been reached and to bring it the benefits of organised and disciplined muscular effort," he added.

There were plans for African Games to be held before the end of the decade, but ultimately the first African Games did not take place until 1965.

If Morocco could reprise their heroics against Spain when they meet Portugal, it would prove the perfect fillip as the continent readies itself for the 2023 African Games in Ghana.