• World Cup 2018: How the rise of Morocco’s Ayoub el Kaabi could make him the tournament’s mysterious star

    If you want one player you have never heard of to get behind this opening weekend, someone new to believe in, then how about Ayoub el Kaabi, Morocco’s rags to riches No 9

    World Cups used to be exotic, but technology and globalisation have burnt away the veil of mystery over the years. Almost all of the stars of the next four weeks will be already known to viewers at home, and that feels like a loss.

    But if you want one player you have never heard of to get behind this opening weekend, someone new to believe in, then how about Ayoub el Kaabi, Morocco’s rags to riches No 9?

    Everyone loves Jamie Vardy’s story but Halifax Town and Stocksbridge Park Steels have got nothing on the Casablanca amateur leagues. Four years ago El Kaabi was training as a carpenter, living in the slums of Mediouna on the outskirts of Casablanca. On Friday evening he will be leading the line for his country, against Iran, in the third game of the 2018 World Cup, in the futuristic $1bn bowl in St Petersburg that will eventually host a semi-final.

    What makes El Kaabi so exciting – even before you see him play – is that his story runs counter to the general trend of Herve Renard’s Morocco side. This is a diaspora squad, with 17 of their 23 players, and all of their best ones, born and raised in western Europe. The sons of Moroccan emigrants, they have been coached at the best European academies, established themselves in European leagues and now decided to take their talents back to their family home. Mehdi Benatia leads the contingent from France, Hakim Ziyech the best of the five from Holland.

    El Kaabi can never compete with the sleek precision of Ziyech or the French-born Younes Belhanda. But from his own story he has a rawness, an easy slingy power, that has made him such a dangerous player and a new cult hero at home.

    There are not many routes to the top of the game from the Moroccan lower leagues, even less when your club – in this case Racing Casablanca – sends you further down the pyramid on loan. El Kaabi always wanted to play up front but Racing coaches had looked at his size – he looks like a back-row forward – and tried him at centre-back, left-back or holding midfield instead. It was only when El Kaabi hammered in a few goals in a pre-season tournament two years ago that Racing thought he was worth a try up front.

    Most important of all, though, was the judgement of Jamal Sellami in the stands. Morocco, like all African countries, has two national teams. One for their best players, managed by Renard, playing Iran tomorrow. The other for their players who play club football in the country itself, managed by Sellami, who play in the ‘CHAN’ tournament instead.

    Sellami saw El Kaabi score two penalties against Raja Casablanca and was instantly convinced. “It was the way he scored the penalties that fascinated me, especially against a penalty-saving specialist,” Sellami told France Football. “He had it all, the mastery and the confidence, especially for a left-footer of his size.”

    That was the start. El Kaabi was moved up front for the 2016-17 season, scored 25 goals in 33 teams and won Racing Casablanca promotion to the Moroccan top flight. That earned him a transfer last summer to a bigger team, Renaissance Sportive Berkane.

    More importantly, he was part of Sellami’s squad of Moroccan-based players who would compete for CHAN in January 2018 in their home country. Buoyed by his continued club form, he smashed all records for CHAN goal-scoring, finishing with nine goals, a winners’ medal and the player of the tournament medal. It even attracted the interest of big spending teams from outside Morocco, and a $3m bid from Zamalek in Egypt.

    The big move away from his homeland will come soon enough – Besiktas have been watching him closely for months – but the real prize was a promotion from Sellami’s squad to Renard’s, from the best Moroccans based in Morocco to the best Moroccans anywhere in the game.

    Renard threw El Kaabi in against Uzbekistan on 27 March for his senior international debut. It took him three minutes to score.

    Now he is in the full World Cup squad, one of only two Moroccan-based players to be here in Russia, the other being the third-choice goalkeeper. And he was so dangerous in their final warm-up against Estonia that he is expected to supplant Khalid Boutaib to start on Friday.

    El Kaabi is called un bosseur, a grafter, who will run harder than anyone else to make space for his more talented team-mates. He must be one of the least-coached starting outfield players in the tournament, with one season in the Moroccan second division and one in the top flight to his name.

    But watch him head the ball, or hit a bicycle kick, and you see a 24-year-old who was always meant to be a footballer, if only he could find the path. Now here he is up against Iran, with Portugal and Spain around the corner, loitering behind that veil of mystery like none of his opponents here.


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