Maazou, the miracle of the Mena
© AFP

In Niger, people still talk fondly about the previous generation of players who played in the 90s, the likes of Mounkaila Idé, Brah Tahir Djibo and Lambo André Zakari. Now a new name is on the lips of every kid in the streets of Niamey: Moussa Maazou.

And rightly so, for it was Maazou who scored the winner in the Mena's historic 1-0 victory over seven-time and reigning African champions Egypt in CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifying nine days ago. “The biggest day in the history of football in Niger” was how an elated coach Harouna Doula described the day before adding for emphasis: “It is a result you get probably once every 50 years.”

For his part, France-based Maazou tried to stay more calm when discussing his winning goal against Egypt, although he clearly felt the emotion still. “I always thought victory was possible,” he insisted in an exclusive interview with African Football Media. “Only the local-based players were a bit impressed by Egypt's big names. We prepared well for a big game. I am glad to be part of the Mena. It has always been a dream for me to play for my country. Our coach always tells us to believe in ourselves. We just listened to him. After I scored, I told my team-mates 'it's finished for them!' We probably played the match of our lives there.”

Our coach always tells us to believe in ourselves. We just listened to him. After I scored, I told my team-mates 'it's finished for them!' We probably played the match of our lives there.
Niger's Moussa Maazou

He then reconsiders the idea that Egypt were a pushover. “The Egyptians were not that. They behaved professionally. I am proud I was part of this historic success versus the African champions. But,” he added, “my status as a player remains the same. To be honest, I am not a leader. We have veterans, guys who have been in the team for a while, and who decide for us in the team. Maybe I will become that one day, but after all, I am still young in the Mena. I only joined the team in 2008.”

Making inroads in Europe
Just 22 years old, Maazou is back in France playing his club football, this time on loan from CSKA Moscow with Bordeaux, after a successful six-month stint with Monaco at the end of last season. He is from Niamey, coming from the capital's Balafon district. “It's the place where most of the best players in Niger come from,” he said with a smile before explaining his connection to his current club. “My older brother is a goalkeeper with ASFAN, the club I started with back home, and he is a great fan of Ulrich Ramé, with his posters on his wall. So I knew about Bordeaux already, plus [Zinedine] Zidane played there.”

Moussa signed for Les Girondins a few days before the end of the summer transfer market. He was initially scouted by the Belgian Willy Verhoost, who works for Lokeren, and he joined the Belgian club in January of 2008. Working with former Poland great Wlodzimierz Lubanski, who coaches the strikers for Lokeren, he advanced quickly and gained the faith of then-coach Georges Leekens. But such was the progress of the 1.85-metre youngster that after just one season, CSKA swooped to sign him ahead of Paris St. Germain. “[To leave Belgium so quicky] was not my choice,” he explained. “But I have no regrets because I learnt a lot. It made me stronger, as a man.”

At CSKA under Brazilian coach Zico, he sometimes played as a right winger, a new task for him. “Zico preferred us to play in a 4-3-3 with me on the flank. I liked that,” he said before discussing his worst memory in Russia: the Moscow clasico against Dynamo that saw him and Vagner Love booed and racially chided by opposition supporters. “I asked Zico to replace me,” he said before saying: “Dynamo was later punished. Racist stuff... I will never understand that.”

'I will work, work and work'
He joined Monaco in the winter of last season, and he continued to improve and score goals in Ligue 1 and the French Cup, where he played in the final – a 1-0 defeat to PSG. Surprisingly Monaco did not sign him to a permanent deal despite a decent strike rate and the fact that coach Guy Lacombe liked him very much. After the season, Moussa went back to Niamey to rest before returning to Moscow where he continued to work hard on his game.

In the meantime, he reached an agreement with CSKA that he could leave again on loan. Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga showed some interest, but the player preferred a return to France. Valenciennes seemed a likely destination because of the presence of scout Stephane Pauwels, who had recommended him to Monaco. But it was the larger club, Bordeaux, that were the most convincing.

It will be difficult because we’re in a difficult qualifying group, but after what we have achieved recently, the country expects a lot from us now.
Mena coach Harouna Doula

“Today, I am a Bordeaux player, and I want to do everything to become a starter,” he said. “I will work, work and work. I know I still have to work hard technically. But I don't forget that my main job is to score goals. I have DVDs of Bordeaux's games from last season, and I am studying the game of [Marouane] Chamakh, so that I can understand better the combining style of my partners. I am extremely motivated.”

He and his national team-mates are equally driven to help Niger reach their first-ever Cup of Nations, which is being hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in 2012. They crashed out in the second round of the joint qualifying tournament for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and previous continental tournament in Angola, and their task this time around is even tougher – drawn into a group with not just Egypt, but South Africa and Sierra Leone. In September, they lost their opening qualifying match 2-0 to South Africa, but the victory over the Pharoahs puts them second behind Bafana Bafana in the Group G standings with three points.

But qualification is reachable insisted Doula. “Anything is possible in football,” said the coach. "It will be difficult because we’re in a difficult qualifying group, but after what we have achieved recently, the country expects a lot from us now.”