For the first time in the history of the FIFA World Cup, a country from Africa would feature in the Greatest Show on Earth.
The draw for the qualifying stages was conducted on 1 February 1968 in Casablanca, Morocco, with matches beginning in May 1968 and the final fixtures being concluded in December 1969. North Korea, quarter-finalists at the previous tournament, were disqualified during the process after refusing to play in Israel for political reasons.
El Salvador qualified for the finals after beating Honduras in a play-off match, which was the catalyst for a four-day conflict in July 1969 known as the Football War.
Half of the eventual qualifying teams had also been present at the previous World Cup, but three teams qualified for the first time: El Salvador, Israel, and Morocco.
After the boycott in 1966, FIFA set aside one spot solely for a representative from the CAF region which meant that African sides did not have to compete with Asian, Oceania, or Europe as they had done previously.
Of the 13 teams who applied, only Ghana, who had finished second in the African Nations Cup was given a bye to the second round.
Congo Kinshasa, then continental champions, did not take part in qualifying.
Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria, and Ethiopia advanced to the next stage, where Morocco and Tunisia found themselves in a similar position to the one they were when competing to play at the 1962 World Cup.
Both matches of their two-legged tie were goalless, and the decider, played at a neutral venue in France, was locked at 2-2. Penalty shootouts were still not used to settle matches so it went down to a coin toss, which Morocco won.
They then went into a third-round and locked horns against Nigeria and Sudan twice each, finishing top of the mini-league to advance to the World Cup.
Finally, the day had arrived when Morocco would represent the African continent on the big stage.
They were pitted against the former West Germany, Bulgaria and Peru in Group 4.
The kind of players Morocco had and the way had been performing for almost seven or eight years, vying for a place in the next round would be tough but not impossible.
Peru and Bulgaria played an epic encounter on June 2 at Leon and the following day, on the same venue, Morocco faced the German Giants in their opening match.
Said Gandhi, the striker back then, said to BBC, “West Germany was like Goliath. They had star players like Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, and Sepp Maier”.
While the goalkeeper Allal Ben-Kassou said to FIFA.com, “If you don’t have the confidence or self-belief you shouldn’t really go. We were confident and not afraid, even though we had a difficult opening game. The German team of the 70s had a huge reputation and some of the biggest names in football like Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, and the goalkeeper, Sepp Maier”.
“As far as we were concerned, we were representing Morocco and Africa so this was a game we had to treat with the utmost seriousness. It was going to be a difficult match but we wanted to try as hard as possible to get a result that would please us as well as the Moroccan fans.”
Despite the star-power and supreme skill-level, the Moroccans were not afraid to take the attack back to the Germans.
In the 21st minute Jarir gave Morocco the lead!
As Gandhi said, “Our first goal really shocked the Germans. Only God knows what they must have thought when we were in the lead”.
The Germans transformed into cornered Tigers – wounded but not broken.
Their frontline backed up by the libero Franz Beckenbauer came out all guns blazing and it was a testing moment for Ben-Kassou!
He said, “Honestly, we really didn’t think we could beat them. They attacked right from the beginning and I had to make quite a few important saves. Their whole attack seemed as though they would produce goals and after defending with your backs to the wall, your confidence can become fragile, but when we scored that all changed. Our confidence grew and we felt great but we had to keep focused and keep hold of our lead”.
At one point Ben-Kassaou got injured but still kept on fighting.
Gandhi said, “Our keeper was injured but we did not change him. That was a major mistake”.
Ultimately Uwe Seeler and Gerd Muller would ensure a German victory.
On May 31, 1970, the Ancash earthquake, also known as the Great Peruvian earthquake, took place on the coast of Peru in the Pacific Ocean combined with a resultant landslide. Stil it is regarded as the most catastrophic natural disaster in the history of Peru.
Peru decided to leave home but later changed their mind.
Gandhi said, “They had an earthquake in their country and the players initially decided to leave the tournament and return home”.
“This would have meant that we would have been awarded the match”.
“Our coach gave us a break from training but the Peruvians decided they would play after all”.
“We had a day off from training and lost the psychological edge”.
“The team lost focus and were completely thrown off balance”.
In their last group match against Bulgaria, they drew and left a mark in the tournament.
16 years later, Morocco would qualify for the next round from a group, which included England, Poland, and Portugal.
In the Round of 16, yet again, West Germany would dash their dreams.
Ben-Kassou said, “We didn’t qualify for the second round but we played some good football and showed the rest of the world that African football had to be taken seriously. We got a lot of recognition from everyone. When we arrived back home, there were thousands of fans waiting for us at the airport.”
While Gandhi still feels proud of that World Cup adventure in Mexico 1970, “We left our mark in Mexico and we are proud of that”.