Raja Club Athletic take on Auckland City FC in their opening match at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013 on Wednesday, an occasion on which they will be looking to centre-half Mohamed Oulhaj to reproduce the kind of performances that helped the Green Eagles win this year’s Moroccan league title.
It came as no surprise when, on the back of those displays, Morocco’s national team coach Rachid Taoussi called the 25-year-old stopper up for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers, handing him a start in the 1-1 draw with Côte d’Ivoire in September. Oulhaj made more appearances in all competitions for his club last season that any of his team-mates, an indication in itself of his consistency and dependability.
Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, he discussed his side’s Club World Cup chances and said he believed they have the experience to acquit themselves well, despite their pre-tournament status of underdogs.
“We know that this is a major international competition and that all the teams we’re up against have won continental tournaments,” he said, pointing out the size of the task faced by Raja Casablanca, who will be making their second Club World Cup appearance, 13 years after their first. “We will be representing the host nation and we are the weakest team on paper, though that doesn’t mean to say that we will be happy just to make up the numbers. We’re here to get the best results we can.”
Named in the Moroccan league’s all-star team last season, Oulhaj added: “Everyone in the side wants to play at international level and I think we are capable of going far in the competition. We are the league champions of Morocco, we won the Cup and we’ve got quite a few young players in the team. There is no reason why Raja Casablanca should fear anyone.”
Confident he may be, but Oulhaj is also realistic: “We also need to be aware of our limitations,” he added.
Yet though quarter-final opponents Auckland City have a certain amount of Club World Cup experience under their belt, the young central defender said his side have what it takes to beat them: “There are no weak or inexperienced teams in this competition. Auckland City have taken part in it a few times and they’ve had some good results.
We are capable of going far... There is no reason why Raja Casablanca should fear anyone.
"We’ll be doing all we can to win this match, and if we do, it will get us right in the swing of things. Any other result would be a disappointment for the Morocco fans, who have had their fill of losing.”
Warming to his theme, he added: “We are going to be watching videos of Auckland City over the next few days so we can identify their strengths and weaknesses. We really want to get over this first hurdle.”
As he went on to explain, the fans will be crucial in helping Raja Casablanca fulfil their goals at Morocco 2013, which ultimately include a place in the final: “Our supporters are going to make the difference in this competition. We are representing the Moroccan people as a whole and the fans will be right behind us. This is the first time that we are hosting this competition.”
Oulhaj added: “We are going to take each match as it comes. If we beat Auckland City, we’ll face on Mexico’s Monterrey in our next game. It would be a first for our club, and the players will be giving their all to make the next round. It would be mission accomplished for us if we can do that.”
The Green Eagles have been meticulous with their preparations for the tournament, having played a number of friendlies with European clubs over the last couple of years, a build-up that Oulhaj believes will give them an advantage when the action starts. He said: “The high-level friendlies we’ve played against big European teams have given us a very good idea of how the team is performing.”
Known for his composure and sportsmanship, the Morocco defender said: “We’ve played Nice, Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and a few Hungarian teams and those games have been really useful for us. We’ve learned a lot and I’m sure the experience we picked up in those matches will stand us in good stead at the Club World Cup.”
Oulhaj knows he can expect a major test of his skills over the next few days, especially if his side make it to the business end of the tournament: “It’s a great honour to compete against star players and it will be a chance for me to raise my game. The experience will be useful for both my club and international career.”
Rounding off our chat, he said: “You have to be aware of what they’re capable of, but you can never predict what’s going to happen in football. We want to win the lot this year and the Club World Cup is among our objectives.”