In Doha, team Morocco won a few fights in the individual event but in the team event they really came alive, placing fifth for the first time for any African nation, beating some incredibly experienced teams and missing out on the podium by a cat’s whisker.
They were clearly totally united, supporting each other, win or lose, cheering for each other loudly but not getting in the way of the coaching, acknowledging their position on he ladder but fighting with confidence anyway. They pushed everyone to the wire, world medallists, Olympians, starlets from the juniors, everyone was simply an opponent.
Team Morocco then travelled to Linz in Austria. They only took one 5th place, with Doukkali at -73kg, but again it was very close and with some solid wins en route. The whole team approached their contests with a plan, with accumulated evidence that says they are getting better and also with a little more doubt in the minds of their opponents. Whatever their new national coach, Mr Croitoru, is doing, it’s working!
They are now in Dushanbe, the same team, ready to go again. The highest ranked is Soumiya Iraou, -52kg, currently 26th in the world. She has no World Judo Tour medals but does have several top eight placings and has also been continental champion. In Doha, at the world championships she beat Joana Diogo of Portugal, Kuznetsova (AIN) and then lost out to double Olympic medallist Giuffrida (ITA) in the round of 16. It was a very good day.
We could be understood for predicting that a Moroccan flag will hang over the podium this weekend. Predictions make an ass out of all of us but maybe right now is the right time for one member of this team to show the rest that they really are on their way. How much can they improve before the cut-off for Paris 2024 arrives? We shall see soon as time is accelerating and at this moment the Moroccans are keeping up.
The second underdog in Dushanbe is the home team. They have their big chief to captain the team, Temur Rakhimov, the long-standing world number one at +100kg, despite not having any world or Olympic medals… yet.
Behind him is a delegation of 32 more Tajik athletes, a mix of the young and the seasoned, all wishing to have their best ever day, at home in front of their friends, families and clubs. Austria showed them what is possible when, last week, their team of 40 judoka pulled off some incredible feats, including having the oldest judoka of the event win her first fight before retiring to a standing ovation; 42 year old Sabrina is their national treasure and is already off on her next adventure, cycling through Pakistan on her way way to K2 as the next chapter on the Forever Everest mission.
Austria also had 33 year old Florian Doppelhammer, a national coach for the cadets and a judoka with no world ranking, no previous attendance on the WJT but the biggest crowd behind him and he fought out of his skin all the way to the final block. He beat opponents from USA, Israel, Latvia and Slovakia and placed 5th, an unbelievably inspiring day of judo that re-educated us all on the value of heart, crowd and home!
With their eclectic mix of athletes, from Olympic medallists to coaches and teenagers, Austria amassed a gold, a bronze, three 5th places and four 7th places. They heard their own national anthem play at the TipsArena and they blew the roof off throughout the event with their spectators.
Perhaps the Tajik team isn’t quite of the calibre of the Austrians, on the whole, but they’re at home and they have as good a chance as anyone to pull off some magic.
Beginning at 10:30am on Friday and at 11:30am on Saturday and Sunday, the Tajik and Moroccan teams will do their best just as their opponents will. There will be some shake-downs on the JudoTV prediction league, no doubt.