Gearing up for their second tilt at the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco next month, Raja Casablanca will be hoping for a superb campaign from experienced forward Mouhssine Iajour as they look to make a splash on the global stage.
Iajour is currently enjoying life back at the club where it all began for him at the age of 18, ten years ago. Having started his career with the Moroccan giants, he then took his talents abroad to Swiss outfit Chiasso, before spending two years in Belgium with Charleroi.
From there, he returned home to join Wydad Casablanca, Raja's eternal rivals, but he crossed the city divide again last year to be reunited with the team where he made his professional debut. Together, they promptly clinched the Moroccan league title to book a spot in December's Club World Cup.
Appearing in the competition will no doubt bring back fond memories for Iajour, who scored four goals to help Morocco finish fourth at his last FIFA tournament – the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005. "I ended up top scorer in the African Youth Championship and top scorer for my team at the U-20 World Cup," Iajour told FIFA.com. "This Club World Cup will be my second international tournament. I hope the whole world will remember Iajour as a striker who struck fear into even the best defences."
The 28-year-old will certainly bring a lot of knowhow to bear in the competition, plenty of it having been picked up in the Netherlands eight years ago. "The U-20 World Cup was a chance to learn," he said. "I'm an experienced player now and I'll use that to help my team. With Morocco, we reached the semi-finals and came within touching distance of the final. Raja can make it to the semi-finals of the Club World Cup, and even the final itself."
For that to happen, Raja will need vociferous support from the stands, but Iajour knows the club's traditionally passionate fans can be relied upon to do their part. "Our supporters are hungry for victory, especially in a competition like this," explained the forward, who is as comfortable with his left foot as his right. "It's not easy to qualify for the Club World Cup and even the biggest clubs don't take part in it every year. Some have only appeared once and others never, so we have to prove that we deserve to be there."
That said, Iajour is under no illusions as to the size of Raja's task. "We'll be facing teams who won their continental tournaments and won't just be there by chance," he noted. "Raja are known for raising our game in the big matches, though. We really hope we can honour all the fans in Morocco, especially as this might be our last participation in the event."
Tough opening assignment
Mohamed Fakhir's troops kick off their campaign against Auckland City FC in the play-off for the quarter-finals, with the New Zealand side back in the competition for a fifth time. Despite the experience of their opponents, Iajour feels Raja must be considered favourites thanks to home advantage and the backing of their supporters. "We have to win that first match against Auckland because we're the hosts of the tournament and the crowd will expect a lot of us," he said.
"The opening match will determine how the rest of the competition goes, and a defeat would disappoint everyone. Our many fans are expecting to see the club win its first victory in this competition. That would allow us to go through to the quarter-finals, and then to face Atletico Mineiro in the semis."
Iajour and his colleagues are not taking Auckland lightly, though, and will approach the encounter having done their homework. "We watched the previous editions of the tournament and studied this team, who are really good and have many professional players in their ranks," he said. "Auckland have done great things in this tournament and the fact that they've qualified for Morocco 2013 shows that they're an international-class side who we'll need to tackle with care."
Rubbing shoulders with the elite
Among the other teams hoping to prosper on Moroccan soil are Bayern Munich, Atletico Mineiro, Monterrey – who finished third last year – and Al Ahly, back for their fifth Club World Cup. This will be Raja's second bite, the Casablanca club having lost all three of their games at the inaugural edition in 2000, going down to Corinthians, Real Madrid and Saudi Arabian side Al Nasr.
Few are expecting them to take this year's competition by storm, but Iajour believes Raja can draw inspiration from several clubs who have upset the odds at this level in the past. "Football doesn't follow any logic and there are no big and small teams any more," he said. "We want to reach the semi-finals at least. I hope we'll come up against a big team and that Raja can make front-page headlines.
"We're going to do it," added the confident forward, who stands 1.78m tall. "Who would have bet on Mazembe reaching the final [in 2010]? Even the biggest optimists thought they could reach the last four at best, but they went to the final and fully deserved to be there. The Saudi Arabian club Al Sadd also got to the semis, and Al Ahly have come close to the final before."
If Iajour hopes to help his team pull off a similar exploit, he will need to be in optimal form, something he has struggled to achieve so far this term. He has struck just two goals in eight league outings, and his travails in front of goal have elicited comparisons with Madrid forward Karim Benzema, another player yet to hit his peak this season.
Iajour himself can only chuckle at mentions of the French international. "It's true that both of us went without scoring for a fairly long time," he said. "But I tend to be decisive in the big games, which ought to help me find the net in the Club World Cup. My first mission is to score, but the coach also wants me to create chances for my team-mates. I know I'll be one of the leading scorers in the tournament."
Indeed, having topped the goal charts with four strikes at the 2005 CAF African Youth Championship, Iajour's dream is to snaffle the adidas Golden Boot as the Club World Cup's most prolific marksman. "Every player dreams of getting their name on the scoresheet in a big competition," he explained. "I finished among the top scorers at the U-20 World Cup and the African Youth Championship, so why can't I do it at the Club World Cup as well? It's true, though, that it'll be difficult up against players like Ronaldinho and Mario Mandzukic, and goalkeepers like Manuel Neuer."
Iajour's advantage, of course, will be playing in front of crowds spurring him on to succeed. "Most great teams get their enthusiasm and their ability to make the difference from their supporters. At Raja, we have a lot of fans and they back us everywhere we play, so I can only imagine what it'll be like at this Club World Cup. The fact that the tournament is being held in Morocco is a factor in our favour and I hope we'll make Club World Cup history in style."