“Bobby Robson can start looking for alternative employment if England fail to reach the last 16 of the World Cup.” The words of Harry Miller in the Daily Mirror, under the headline ‘Nice and easy for England’, seemed to imply that Bobby Robson’s team basically had a bye out of the 1986 World Cup group stages. But the course for England at major tournaments is rarely smooth.
Morocco had last qualified for the World Cup in 1970, pushing West Germany close in their opening group match, and since their debut, African football had started to make a splash at the tournament. Both Tunisia and Algeria had won matches at the 1978 and 1982 finals and it was surely a matter of time before a nation from the African continent made it past the group stage.
Keen to get some preparation in against African opponents, Robson was delighted when a friendly in Egypt was organised in January 1986. Sadly, his enthusiasm was not shared with club managers and journalists. Deprived of 13 players due to injuries and FA Cup replays, it would be an inexperienced team that Robson fielded in England’s first match against an African country.
Peter Beardsley made his debut, and Danny Wallace would score in his one and only match for his country, but England were flattered by the 4-0 win. Peter Shilton had pulled off a number of fine saves, and Robson used the performance of Egypt to express his opinions on the challenge ahead of facing Morocco in Mexico.
“People think that these games are easy but they never are,” Robson noted. “Morocco are capable of giving us some real problems in the World Cup. We have learned a bit about North African football, and they are improving all the time. After our game in Egypt no one involved with England will be complacent about Morocco.”
Managed by Brazilian Jose Faria, Morocco were a strong defensive unit who would counter attack to great effect. Qualifying for Mexico by defeating Sierra Leone, Malawi, Egypt, and Libya, they had only conceded one goal in the process. Faria, who had converted to Islam from Catholicism, may have been Brazilian, but he knew pragmatism was the order of the day with his team.
The squad had a number of key players. Captain Zaki was one of Africa’s finest keepers; the Merry brothers, Abdelkrim and Mustafa, provided a cutting thrust going forwards; and the star man was attacking midfielder Mohamed Timoumi, African Footballer of the Year in 1985, and a player constantly linked to Real Madrid.
The majority of Faria’s squad was drawn from the domestic game, but five players plied their trade in France and Switzerland, and a number of the men taken to Mexico had played under Faria as Morocco qualified for the 1984 Summer Olympics. As Robson indicated, this was a team that should not be underestimated.
Even so, the general level of surprise expressed after Morocco’s opening draw with Poland highlighted that many were taking them for granted. Steve Curry, writing in the Express, gave the opinion that Morocco had “caused the first real upset of the tournament,” in their goalless draw with the Poles.
Faria’s team had shown that they would be no pushovers; indeed the manager spent a great deal of time defending their defensive approach. But the English press seemingly ignored this, talking only of the favour the Moroccans had done Robson’s team by opening up the group. When England promptly lost their group opener to Portugal, you might have thought a heavy dose of realism was overdue.
“Our hopes and credibility as a football nation will be destroyed if we cannot beat Morocco in Monterrey,” Nigel Clarke declared in the Mirror. “A draw or defeat are unthinkable,” Harry Harris added. “I take England to win handsomely.” Stuart Jones in the Times pointed out the perceived weakness of the Moroccans in the air, predicting that Mark Hateley “should inflict irreparable damage.”
The optimism was sorely misplaced. Even before England’s double disaster towards the end of the first half, the team had been ponderous, and lacking in ideas. Staying up on a Friday night to watch the match that kicked off at 11pm should have been a treat. But it turned into a punishment.
The gamble taken on skipper Bryan Robson inevitably backfired, when he dislocated his shoulder for a third time in 1986. And to make matters worse, deputy Ray Wilkins lost his head, booked twice in two minutes, the second offence of throwing the ball aggressively towards Paraguayan referee Gabriel Gonzalez the latest episode in the omnishambles surrounding England.
“I thought we had been awarded a free kick for a foul and when I saw it was the other way for offside I threw the ball at the referee,” Wilkins commented later. “I feel a fool.” So did the millions of English fans that had stayed up to watch the match. In the ITV studios at half-time, Keegan, Channon, and St John debated where England went from here.
For all the criticism he has received down the years, it was actually Keegan who spoke the most sense. Highlighting the fact that a draw would now be a good result, and that as a nation expectations were always built up too high, the future England manager noted that the team had to be tight at the back and maybe see if they could sneak something.
Had Morocco gone at England, then who knows, maybe England would have been facing elimination after two matches, and Robson’s reign as manager may have been over. Fortunately, Faria showed little ambition, and was content with the point. Cries of “What a load of rubbish” may have been sung by England’s 3,000 fans in Mexico; but a 0-0 draw with ten men in the heat of Monterrey was a useful result.
It didn’t stop the press lambasting Robson and his team, though. “Barely In the chequered history of English international football has a nation been so badly let down by its sporting ambassadors abroad,” Curry complained. Harris mentioned the “disaster and disgrace for England.” Jones indicated that this was a “humiliating draw”.
Surely the reaction was a little over the top. The draw had enabled England to cling on to hopes of qualification, something that they achieved emphatically, as Robson, forced to change his hand, brought in the likes of Steven, Reid, Hodge and Beardsley with memorable consequences. Admittedly the team had been performing poorly in Mexico, but should the English press really have gone to town after a goalless draw in searing heat whilst playing half the match with ten men?
The slightly snobby opinions would need to be reassessed a few days later when Morocco went on to win Group F after beating Portugal 3-1. Narrowly losing to West Germany after conceding a late goal, Faria’s men had laid down another building block in the progress of African football.
“For the first time In World Cup history an African nation is through to the second phase, proof that the much prophesied soccer revolution is upon us,” David Emery wrote in the Express before the West German match. Being complacent against African nations was hopefully a thing of the past. But I’m not sure scout Howard Wilkinson got the memo when it came to assessing Cameroon four years later.