The future again looks promising for Moroccan football with the country set to take part in the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament which kicks off this week in Great Britain.
Their progress at London 2012 will depend largely on a group of top-class youngsters who have already proved themselves both in the competition’s African qualifiers late last year, and the 2012 Toulon Tournament, which recently concluded in France. Impressive though the squad is, one player stands head and shoulders above his peers: Sporting CP’s 19-year-old playmaker and prodigy Zakaria Labyad.
With talent like Labyad at the team’s disposal, Morocco can dream of a new golden generation to match the legendary Aziz Bouderbala and Co, who reached the second round of the 1986 FIFA World Cup™ in Mexico.
Labyad’s diminutive stature, pace and technical skills have already drawn comparisons with the great Bouderbala. Nor does the Dutch-born player lack in self-belief, as he showed during the long road to professionalism. After joining the PSV youth team in 2004, he spent five years making the daily trip from his hometown of Utrecht to the training facilities in Eindhoven until he was finally rewarded with his first senior contract in 2009.
After his 2010 debut in a UEFA Europa League game against Hamburg, Labyad quickly became a first-team regular, playing more than 70 games for the club and enjoying considerable success. Perhaps his finest moment came in the 2011/12 season when he provided assists for two of his side’s three goals against Heracles Almelo to secure the KNVB Cup.
Immediately after that cup victory, the then PSV coach Philip Cocu gave the young Moroccan full credit for the club’s achievement after a difficult season. Unsurprisingly, top European sides such as Chelsea, Valencia and AC Milan enquired about his availability, with Labyad eventually signing on the dotted line for Sporting on 2 July.
A debt to Afellay
Labyad himself is keen to express the debt he owes to fellow Dutch-Moroccan Ibrahim Afellay, the Barcelona star he once played with in Eindhoven: “Afellay is who I aim to be. He’s helped me a lot and always pushes me to work hard and try to emulate him, not just as an athlete, but as a human being. He’s an amazing person.”
Though Labyad did not take part in the African qualifiers for London 2012, Morocco coach Pim Verbeek still made a point of travelling to meet with the player and explain how central he was to his plans for the side.
Labyad did not let him down. The success of players such as Abdelaziz Barrada, who starred in the Olympic qualifiers, inspired Labyad to show his class when the chance came. Moreover his performances at Toulon have further underlined his importance to Morocco’s Olympic hopes.
Adept at retaining possession, the youngster’s passing game made him a dependable presence while his side were defending and a danger going forward. Over the course of 40 games during his final season at PSV, Labyad was involved in over half of all goals scored by the club. Not averse to taking a shot or two himself, the player is also known for his dangerous corner kicks.
For all his attributes, the man himself is always looking to improve his skills, especially in one-on-one encounters with opponents who frequently tower over him.
London 2012 will be a golden opportunity for the young lion to cement his standing as one of Morocco’s brightest hopes and kick off the next phase of what many predict will be a glittering club career too.