The team's players are reaping the rewards of the long-term planning and investment that have been the hallmark of the sport in the country as well as at their own club.
The success of Renaissance Sportive de Berkane, also known as RS Berkane, in the recent CAF Confederation Cup is further proof that Morocco is destined to rule African football in years to come. Ten days after Berkane's victory, Wydad Casablanca stunned Egypt's Al Ahly to win the CAF Champions League, ensuring that the trophies of both Africa's inter-club competitions reside in Morocco for the next year.
Wydad's success is unsurprising. The three-time African champions are among the continent's heavyweights, having reached three finals of the Champions League in the last five years. Berkane's story, on the other hand, is remarkable because they only returned to top-flight football a decade ago after languishing in the lower leagues since 1984.
Berkane are reaping the rewards of a long-term plan set up since they got promoted to the Moroccan first division, the Botola Pro 1, in 2012. This is the second time in three seasons they have won the Confederation Cup, with another triumph for Morocco coming from Raja Casablanca in 2021.
One of the key elements of Berkane's success this year was bringing in the experienced former Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) coach Florent Ibengé, who at one point combined his role of national team manager with that of AS Vita coach. "I was looking for a challenge that would take me out of my comfort zone after so many years in DR Congo," says Ibengé, who joined Berkane in July last year. "And I was convinced by the club's ambition."
Ibengé took AS Vita to two finals in the continent's inter-club competitions during his two spells in Kinshasa. He also led the DRC to the African Nations Championship crown in 2016. He is one of the most respected coaches in Africa, and it's no coincidence that he has chosen Morocco to further his career.
According to him, there is a good reason for football booming in Morocco. "They understood that football isn't a matter of witchcraft but of methodical work and business," says Ibengé. "And to be successful in a business, you have to find the resources and put in place a project."
Pillars of success
Ibengé believes that high-quality facilities and investment in the training of young players are widening the gap between Morocco and other African countries. "Here each club has its own stadium, a separate training ground and a training centre. In sub-Saharan Africa we have private academies, but only a few training centres run by the clubs."
Even world football governing body Fifa praised Berkane's training centre in 2021. It has seven synthetic turf pitches and a grass pitch. Its accommodation centre has a capacity of 112 beds and there is also an educational centre, a home for the national women's team and a sports medicine centre.
The commitment to training coaches of the Royal Moroccan Football Association (FRMF) is also what is giving the country an edge. Ibengé was among the first participants in the continent's first pro licence intake in Morocco. The restructuring of the domestic league in the 2011-2012 season also made it more competitive.
"The clubs are more structured than at the time when FUS Rabat and MAS Fez won the Confederation Cup [in 2010 and 2011]," says Mohamed Amine El Amri, a Moroccan sports journalist. "That means that there are more financial resources now, making it easier for top teams to keep their best players and thus maintain the level."
All Botola Pro 1 matches have been broadcast since 2007. The most recent deal, agreed in 2018 between the Moroccan public broadcaster and the FRMF, is worth almost R2 billion. Morocco was also the first African team to use video assistant referees in their matches. Every single aspect of the game is a proof of how the country is leading the way on the continent.
In Berkane's case, El Amri believes that stability is a key factor that differentiates the club, even from other Moroccan sides. "A coach at Berkane will most likely spend at least two seasons on the bench," he says. At other clubs, finishing a season at the helm is an achievement.
"They were also able to sign players for a low fee and then sell them on a profit," says Benjamin Hajji, a Norwegian-Moroccan scout and founder of the Moroccan football information portal Maghrib Foot. "Especially Ayoub El Kaabi, who was brought in for peanuts [€1.88 million, R30.85 million] from second-division side Racing Casablanca and sold for €6 million to China."
What is outstanding is that they already had his replacement - the Togolese Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba. "They always build the team with cover in most positions," says Hajji. "Moroccan clubs have really struggled in general in finding foreign players who work, but Berkane have succeeded. Issoufou Dayo, who is now the vice-captain of the club, is another example. They always make clever signings. You can see the reasoning behind their moves."
Despite Ibengé getting a full pre-season and free reign in the transfer market, Hajji hasn't been impressed by Berkane's performances this season, especially in the domestic league, where they have been a real disappointment. "I was expecting them to fight for the title, but they are far behind that," he says. "They have been committing more men forward, usually playing a more offensive 4-3-3 with attacking fullbacks, but at the same time they have been caught more on counter-attacks than ever before."
These shortcomings haven't stopped Berkane from ending their season on a brilliant note. "If you look deeper at their Confederation Cup's run, you will see that they were margins away from going out in every stage," Hajji points out, "but they have managed to rely on their usual solidity and grind out results at home."
Ibengé agrees that there is still a lot of work to do before realising the vision he has in mind, but says patience is needed. "It's not so easy. You have to go step by step. We are on the right track but we haven't yet reached the level that I want. We still need time."
With or without him, Ibengé feels confident that, over time, Berkane will consolidate their status as a winning team and be crowned Moroccan champions. "In the youth sector there is a fantastic group of 15-year-olds who are growing very well," he says. "Berkane won't probably win the league right away, but they will because there is vision among the management and the foundation is great for building a competitive team over the long haul.
"Winning only once in the short run is nice, but raising your own level every year and being competitive in the long run is more important. In the past four years Berkane has played in three Confederation Cup finals. This proves the club's ambition and foresight."
Whiff of patronage
Behind the gradual but apparently unstoppable growth of Berkane and Moroccan football is the controversial figure of Fouzi Lekjaa, who is a Berkane native.
Lekjaa was Berkane's chairperson from 2009 to 2019 and now wears multiple hats. He is the president of the FRMF, a position he has held since 2014, and the minister delegate to the minister of finance responsible for the budget. He is also a member of the Fifa council and vice-president of the Confederation of African Football.
Simultaneously being the head of Berkane and the FRMF for five years and then leaving the presidency of the club to Hakim Benabdallah, his nephew, has made many in Morocco turn up their noses.
"Even though he's not president of the club anymore, many in Morocco still see Berkane as Lekjaa's team, which will always be the bad-faith excuse for the opposing supporters," says El Amri.
"In fact, Berkane is growing by experience and by the ambitious sporting project put in place. I think with time, and maybe more titles, Berkane will be a big club and maintain their level a long time after Lekjaa is not in command."