• 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.


  • WC 2018: Renard wants his fringe players to be ready

    Russia (AP) — Morocco has waited 20 years to return to the World Cup and coach Herve Renard is urging his fringe players to make the most of every opportunity on the world stage.

    Even if some players barely see any action, Renard expects the entire squad to put the nation's hopes ahead of their own personal goals when Morocco plays Iran Friday in its Group B opener.

    "Maybe you only play five minutes," Renard said Thursday, "but they can be the most important five minutes for your country and your team."

    He will not tolerate fringe players moaning about lack of playing time.

    "There's always a bit of frustration when you're part of a squad, but you have to work hard and wait for your chance," Renard said. "That's what football is like. They have to be ready and mentally prepared to take up the challenge."

    The challenge in Group B will be daunting. Morocco's other opponents are European champion Portugal and 2010 World Cup winner Spain. Despite the challenges, this is no sight-seeing exercise for Morocco.

    "We're not just here to take photos of St. Petersburg's monuments," Renard said. "We're here because we're competitors."

    In the two-plus years Renard has been in charge, the coach instilled confidence and closeness on the team. Morocco did not concede a goal in the decisive round of qualifying and is unbeaten in 18 games.

    "We've been very tough to beat," said captain Mehdi Benatia. "We want to prove we should be respected."

    Morocco's previous appearance on the biggest stage was in 1998, about the same time the 49-year-old Renard began his vagabond-like coaching career in the lower echelons of French football. Morocco's star that year was attacking midfielder Mustapha Hadji, who is now one of Renard's two assistants at this tournament.

    Morocco has traditionally had skillful midfielders while lacking a clinical center forward. That hasn't appeared to change and the Atlas Lions' hopes are resting on attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech.

    Ziyech plays for Ajax in the Dutch first division and has been linked with a number of clubs, including Roma in Italy's Serie A. Renard wants him to secure a dream move through his performances in Russia.

    "He has the talent and the skill to do that," said Renard. "For a coach, it's fantastic to have a player with his skill. He sees a lot of things before the others."

    Iran's main attacking threat comes from Sardar Azmoun, who has scored 23 goals for his country. While skillful, he could also cause Morocco's defense problems with his strong heading ability.

    "He's a striker of the highest quality. But in the qualifiers we came up against Gervinho (Ivory Coast) and (Pierre-Emerick) Aubameyang, and they are tough to stop," Renard said. "We'll be ready to stop him."

  • Morocco v Iran preview: First World Cup meeting between sides

    (Sky Sports) Morocco will play Iran for the first time in a World Cup as they start their Group B campaigns on Friday afternoon (4pm BST).

    Morocco and Iran boast strong defensive records heading into their opening game at the Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg.

    Morocco were the only team not to concede a single goal in the third round of African qualifying, while Iran kept nine straight clean sheets in AFC qualification, letting in just two during their final game against Syria.

    Iran striker Alireza Jahanbakhsh finished as last season's Eredivisie top scorer with 21 goals for AZ Alkmaar. Morocco playmaker Hakim Ziyech - who plays his club football for Ajax - contributed the most assists in the Dutch league with 21.

    Former Manchester United assistant Carlos Queiroz and ex-Cambridge United boss Herve Renard will look to navigate their respective nations out of a tricky group which includes Portugal and Spain.

    Team news

    Iran will be without the suspended Saeid Ezatolahi, while there are fitness doubts surrounding Mehdi Taremi and Askhan Dejagah.

    Morocco will be hoping Nabil Dirar is passed fit. Dirar missed Morocco's last two friendlies against Slovakia and Estonia due to a calf injury.

    Morocco and Iran have never met at the World Cup. They've faced each other only once previously, a game which ended in a draw.

    Morocco have qualified for their fifth World Cup, their first since 1998. They have never progressed further than the round of 16 (1986), being eliminated in the group stages three times in their four previous appearances.

    Iran have qualified for the World Cup in back-to-back tournaments for the first time. However, they have never reached the knockout stages, winning only one of their 12 games (D3 L8) - against USA on 21 June 1998 (2-1).

    Carlos Queiroz is taking part in his third consecutive World Cup tournament as manager, and second in a row with Iran. His best performance was in 2010, when he led Portugal to the Round of 16 before being knocked out by eventual winners Spain.

    Merson's Prediction

    I think Morocco will just win this one - it will be an awkward match for both sides, but Morocco will just have too much for Iran. It is one of those games again that whoever loses it is probably out of the World Cup.


  • World Cup 2018: Nabil Dirar Recovered, Will Play Iran Friday

    (Morocco World News) Rabat- The Moroccan Atlas Lion Nabil Dirar has recovered from his injury and is back to training for the team’s opening World Cup match against Iran on Friday, June 15.

    Weeks ahead of the World Cup competition, the national team’s winger from the right side, Dirar, had a calf injury in the middle of training and had to miss the friendly match against Slovakia in Geneva on June 4.

    To avoid the risk of losing Dirar’s assets during the competition, the team’s coach, Hervé Renard, spared him from playing in the friendly match, saying:“It’s just a precaution to be in possession of all our strength… It’s better to leave him a few days off, and not let him play tomorrow to make sure he can get back in shape pretty quickly.”

    Renard had already made a back-up plan in case Dirar’s injury did not heal in time: “There is no point in taking unnecessary risks…


    (Sputnik) - A team of Turkish referees led by Cuneyt Cakir will officiate the 2018 FIFA World Cup match between Iran and Morocco, the Iranian team said via their official Twitter account on Wednesday.

    Cakir, who officiated three matches at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, will be assisted by Bahattin Duran and Tarik Ongun.

    Iran will face Morocco at the 67,000-seater St. Petersburg Stadium on Friday. The game will kick off at 6 p.m. Moscow time (15:00 GMT).

    On Tuesday, FIFA announced that Argentine referee Nestor Pitana would take charge of Thursday's opening match between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia.

    Iran and Morocco have been drawn in Group B along with 2010 World Cup champions Spain and Euro 2016 winners Portugal.

    Russia's first-ever FIFA World Cup starts on Thursday and will last until July 15.

  • Factbox - Morocco versus Iran

    (Reuters) - Morocco play Iran in a Group B match in St Petersburg on Friday.

    Where: Saint-Petersburg Stadium, St Petersburg

    Capacity: 68,134

    When: Friday June 15, 1800 local time (1500 GMT/1100 ET)

    Key stats:

    - Iran enter the World Cup as one of the highest-ranked teams in Asia, occupying 37th place in the FIFA world rankings while Morocco are in 41st place.

    - Iran have qualified for the consecutive World Cups for the first time, while Morocco are back at the finals for the first time since 1998. Both teams are making their fifth appearance at a World Cup.

    - Morocco progressed beyond the group stages in 1986, topping a group that contained England, Poland and Portugal, while Iran have never reached the last-16.

    - Morocco are unbeaten in their last five games, with four wins and a draw, while Iran’s preparation has been disrupted by the cancellation of two friendly matches. They won their final warm-up match against Lithuania 1-0.

    Previous meetings: The sides have never met before in official competition.

  • Press review: Cruel World Cup group has Morocco, Iran grasping at straws

    SAINT PETERSBURG (Reuters) - A luckless draw has severely dented Morocco and Iran’s hopes of making a mark at the World Cup before a ball has been kicked, and they head into their opening match in St Petersburg on Friday knowing defeat could likely mean an early exit.

    Reigning European champions Portugal and 2010 World Cup winners Spain are the other two teams in Group B and are overwhelming favourites to progress to the knockout stages.

    Appearing at consecutive World Cups for the first time, the Iranians are the top team from Asia and have benefited from a period of stability under Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz, who took them to Brazil four years ago.

    The 65-year-old’s preparations for Russia, however, have been disrupted by unwelcome distractions, such as Nike’s refusal to supply boots to his players due to the U.S. sanctions against Iran and the cancellation of two warm-up matches this month.

    “Iran have been drawn in the hardest group in the World Cup and we needed more preparation,” said Queiroz, who will end his seven-year stint as manager after the tournament.

    On the pitch, Iran are without defensive midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi, who is suspended for the first match.

    His work-rate and intelligence will be sorely missed as ‘Team Melli’ try and plot a path to a second victory at their fifth appearance at a World Cup.

    Iran breezed through qualifying with 12 clean sheets and were the second team to book their place in Russia behind Brazil, but doubts loom over the form of first-choice goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.

    On the other hand, forwards Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Saman Ghoddos, Karim Ansarifard, Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi are in good form, and Iran will need every bit of their attacking verve if they are to trouble a well-marshalled Moroccan defence.


    Like Iran, the ‘Atlas Lions’ are playing in their fifth World Cup, but Morocco’s last appearance was two decades ago, at the 1998 edition in France.

    Led by Juventus centre back Mehdi Benatia, Morocco came through qualifying without conceding a goal and have four wins and a draw in their last five matches.

    The team benefits from having a number of players in Europe’s top leagues and are coached by Frenchman Herve Renard, who has instilled a great deal of tactical discipline into the side.

    Veteran midfielders Mbark Boussoufa and Karim El Ahmadi shield the back four, while Renard’s biggest offensive weapon is Dutch-born playmaker Hakim Ziyech.

    Ziyech, who plays for Ajax, was named Dutch footballer of the year and has an eye for the spectacular. He is well complemented by French-born midfielder Younes Belhanda, and both were on target in Morocco’s 3-1 win over Estonia in their final warm-up match earlier this month.

    The north African nation’s most obvious weakness is in goal, as first-choice keeper Munir Mohamedi has barely featured for second-division Spanish side Numancia all season.

    Renard’s team will find it a tall order to escape the group, but can take comfort from the fact that Morocco was the first African country to ever get past the opening round at a World Cup.

    When they achieved that feat in 1986, they did it in style, topping a group that included England, Poland and Portugal.

  • WC 2018: Iran Striker Mehdi Taremi Likely to Miss Morocco Match

    TEHRAN (Tasnim) – Team Melli striker Mehdi Taremi will likely miss his first World Cup game against Morocco, scheduled for Friday June 15.

    Al Gharafa’s striker is considered as one of the best assets of the Iranian team.

    The football player sustained an injury in Iran’s last friendly game against Lithuania on June 8.

    If his condition does not improve, Queiroz is seriously thinking of replacing him with Reza Ghoochannejhad, the striker of SC Heerenveen.

    Taremi told the reporters he suffers an injury against Lithuania but everything is ok at the moment.

    Iran has been drawn in Group B along with Morocco, Spain and Portugal.

  • WC 2018: Iran ready to face Morocco at 2018 World Cup

    (Xinhua) -- Iran's national soccer coach Carlos Queiroz said they are completely ready to meet Morocco at the 2018 World Cup, Tehran Times daily reported on Wednesday.

    "Morocco is an African country but most of their players were born in the European countries and grown up there. They take advantage of a good coach and have also creative players. We respect them a lot and I am sure they respect us a lot too," Queiroz told reporters at BaBakovkaamp in Russia.

    The Portuguese said his men want to beat Morocco but there is no guarantee to win the match.

    "However we can guarantee we will fight until the end. Actions, of course, do speak louder than words, and we want to act," he added.

    Iran, making their fifth appearance in the World Cup finals, kick off their campaign against the Atlas Lions in St Petersburg on June 15.

    Queiroz says to defeat the African powerhouses will help them to book a place in the knockout stage for the first time ever, though it will be a difficult task.

    Queiroz's side, meanwhile, face Spain in Kazan on June 20 before meeting Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal in Saransk five days later.

  • WC 2018: Fernando Hierro to take charge of Spain at World Cup

    Spain's sporting director Fernando Hierro will lead the country at the World Cup.

    Hierro, who is a member of Spain's party for the tournament in Russia, has been installed in the role after the sacking of Julen Lopetegui from the role on Wednesday.

    Lopetegui was removed from his role after taking up the vacant Real Madrid job just two days before Spain play Portugal in their Group B opener.

    Hierro was also involved with the Spanish national team which defeated Holland in the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa.

    The 50-year-old, who was the assistant to Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid in 2014, managed Spanish side Real Oviedo during the 2016-17 season.



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