Without really exciting their fans at the Agadir Stadium, the host nation's Raja Club Athletic nonetheless created the best chances of the opening game of the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013 against Auckland City FC, with captain Mohsine Moutaouali behind most of his team’s best moments. But when the New Zealand outfit equalised after a terrible blunder by the Raja defence, more than skill was required. Cool heads were the order of the day, which was where the Ivorian Kouko Guehi came in.
“I’m the team’s vice-captain,” Guehi said after the game in an interview with FIFA.com. It was a claim that was hard to dispute while watching a match in which the 30-year-old defensive midfielder made sure his team-mates kept their heads and helped them to recover the confidence that had been rocked by the surprise equaliser. Yet it was nothing unusual for a player who has long assumed a leadership role on the field.
“I am one of the most experienced players, and I help to organise the team on the pitch, so it is part of my job to try and motivate the others and to be a leader,” explained a proud Guehi. “That's what I had to do in this game, as we couldn't let our heads drop. I knew we'd score, so I told everyone to calm down and not to panic. We just played our normal game, trying to create chances and letting the ball do the work.”
Twenty minutes into the second half Guehi assumed a triple role. As well as motivating the team, he started to pick up the ball further forward, and create chances for Moutaouali and the wide players. All, of course, without panicking. “To be a defensive midfielder you need to keep your discipline and try to find space. There was no point in playing long balls, because Auckland City are a physically strong team, and our forwards are pretty small. We needed to focus on short passing and a patient build-up, and that's exactly how the goal came about. That's the way Raja Casablanca play, and that's my role.”
Never give up
Guehi’s confidence when he describes his performance against Auckland City shows that he is well aware of his importance to his club, something also evidenced by the statistics. The No28 has rarely been substituted or omitted for a big game, and played a vital role in the team's national title wins in 2011 and 2013 and in the Moroccan Cup triumph in 2012.
“I've hardly missed a game over the last four and a half years, and I'm almost never taken off. It's not easy playing so many hard games, or having the energy to maintain such a rhythm. You need a lot of stamina,” he said. “That's why I'm very proud of what I've achieved in my career so far. Of course, I’m not playing in Europe. I know it's not the highest level of football in the world, but I give everything I’ve got so I can keep on improving. I was selected by Côte d'Ivoire in the past and I would love to be chosen again.”
Even though the call-up to which he refers took place more than ten years ago, and was for the U-17 team, Guehi refuses to give up. And the support of his more famous countrymen Yaya Toure – a friend and rival, albeit at a much higher level – and Emmanuel Eboue, who are both from the same generation as Guehi, allows him to remain hopeful.
“Whenever they (Toure and Eboue) come back to Abidjan we hang out together. We have plenty of mutual friends in the national team, like Max Gradel. We always talk about my chances and they tell me not to give up,” he laughed. “The team was in Casablanca for the World Cup qualifier against Senegal, and I had the chance to talk a lot with [Sabri] Lamouchi (the national coach). So I am being patient. I still think my time will come.”
What could really help Guehi is a successful run for Raja Casablanca in the Club World Cup. Eboue, he said, called him to say he will be watching every game. The next fixture, against Monterrey in the quarter-finals, could be an important moment for his career. “It's great for me to play in such big matches. It is the best way to improve my game,” the midfielder said.
“Getting our first win at the Club World Cup has given us confidence, but we know Monterrey will be much tougher opposition than Auckland City. If we want to do ourselves proud, we need to be completely focused and keep our heads. And, of course, we mustn't panic,” he said, once again. Indeed 'don’t panic' could be Guehi and Raja Casablanca’s motto in the tournament.