Morocco's success at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 is largely attributable to two outstanding players, Nabil El Zhar and Mouhssine Iajour. The pair have made an invaluable contribution to Morocco recovering from an opening defeat to Spain and winning their next two matches to seal a place in the last sixteen.
El Zhar, on the books at AS St Etienne in the French league, has turned in convincing displays in two positions, leading the line from centre forward and in the hole behind the front two. The 18-year-old has buzzed with malicious intent throughout the tournament and provided his team with a fulcrum for their attacking efforts. He has yet to add his name to the goalscoring charts, but the number 10 is his side's main creator of chances. Interviewed by FIFA.com, the player insisted he was in no way surprised at his side's progress to the round of sixteen.
"I honestly can't say whether it helped us to play a strong team right at the start, but we actually played well in losing 3-1 against Spain. Maybe it was good having the bar set high from the beginning. We went on to beat Honduras 5-0. It seems to be our way. We don't get into our stride at the start, but we improve as the tournament goes on. That's what happened at the African championship in Benin in January. We started against weaker opponents, but we just got better against the stronger teams," El Zhar reports.
Sights set high
Winning twice has given the Africans a taste for more of the same. "I think every single team still in the tournament could go on and win it, and I include ourselves. We have a good team. It's always about what happens on the day. If you play well, you go through, and vice versa. Spain are one of the best teams here, but we've shown we can match the big names. I believe we're in with a realistic chance against all the remaining teams," he declares optimistically. In common with every other player in the Netherlands, he regards the FIFA World Youth Championship as a stage to show off his talents. "We're all in the shop window for European clubs here."
El Zhar reckons Morocco have the quality to play a role in the destination of the trophy. "We all have a job to do, we all have to concentrate, we have to take our chances and avoid conceding goals. That's what counts at this level. You're in with a chance of winning every game, even against teams like Spain. You don't need miracles." He judges the general standard in the Netherlands as impressive: "I've watched pretty much every televised game. The teams here are excellent with talented players.
The likeable youngster with expressive eyes says a number of teams have caught his attention. "Argentina and Brazil look powerful, but every side has ability." Morocco need to concentrate on their own game to succeed against Japan in the first knockout round, he believes. "I think it's important we pursue our own tactics and don't become too obsessed with our opponents. It'll be important to score an early goal, because that would let us open up and play our natural game."
Iajour, the man with a nose for goal
Mouhssine Iajour, currently on two goals for the tournament, describes himself as a team player. "The first priority is to play well as a team, so its less important whether I play well. I'm delighted to be part of this team, and I always try and give my best."
The 20-year-old, who emerged into the limelight at the African championship with a five-goal haul, dreams of appearing in Italy one day. "That's where I would like to play most," the Juventus fan declares. While agreeing he relishes the opportunity to put himself forward for the European scouts, he is concerned above all else to please the fans. "Obviously we want to get as far as possible. We want the Moroccan people to be proud of us."
Iajour names Ronaldo and Alessandro Del Piero as his favourite players. He is aiming for more goals as the tournament unfolds, driving his team on and handing any potential European suitors the evidence for a signing. One thing is clear in his mind: "The better the club, the more progress you'll make. That's why it's important to play well here and attract attention from the top clubs."