Since the start of this season, scouts from some of the biggest clubs on the European scene have found their way to humble Belgian outfit Sporting Lokeren. The reason for their interest? None other than 20-year-old Ouwa Moussa Maazao, the latest in a long line of African rough diamonds being polished to perfection in the Jupiler League.
The case of Lokeren's star striker, currently topping the goalscoring charts in Belgium's top flight, is a curious one. In contrast to many of the African players making waves on European soil, Maazao does not hail from continental powerhouses such as Cameroon, Nigeria, Egypt or Côte d'Ivoire. In fact, the gifted front-runner is from the city of Niamey, capital of the western African nation of Niger, who are ranked way back in joint-143rd place on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
His country may not be a prolific supplier of big-name talent, but Maazao has not let that stop him. Indeed, his determination to succeed is underlined by the extra hours put in after every training session with a member of coach and mentor Georges Leekens' staff.
"I'm comfortable here and I feel good. People trust me and I'm working well. I've already made a lot of progress since I arrived here," says the player, who continues to work ceaselessly on improving his all-round game, particularly his technique, heading and shooting ability.
Eleven goals in just 15 appearances would suggest that this extra work is bearing fruit, while Maazao's dedication to the club is such that he now lives just a few hundred metres away from the stadium. "He's a player with a great deal of hunger to succeed and a real desire to improve," says experienced supremo Leekens of his imposing, 1.86m front-man. "What's more, he's got his feet on the ground and is a realist. So I've got faith that he'll know how to handle more difficult times too."
Maazao has already proven his ability to do just that, having made impressive progress in overcoming the cultural, linguistic and climatic barriers of swapping life in Niger for that of Flanders. "It was tough at first because of the weather," says the man of the moment, who joined Lokeren in January 2008 after topping the scorer's charts in his homeland with 20 goals in 34 matches for AS Fan. "The other African players at Lokeren advised me to rub my feet with Vaseline to warm them up, and it works!" added the goal-getter who, Vaseline or not, is on red-hot form at the moment.
Well aware of the time foreign players require to fully adapt to their new surroundings, coach Leekens initially only brought his Niger-born star gradually into the fray. Maazao did not make his debut until March 2008 and scored just once in his first half-season in the Belgian game, thus giving opposing defenders very little warning of the storm heading their way in the opening months of 2008/09.
Leekens' methods may have worked to perfection, but his charge's explosive performances have not escaped the attentions of potential suitors. Indeed, around 20 club scouts were in the stands of the Daknam stadium for the match against FC Bruges on 7 December. "I don't go out to impress the scouts, even if they come en masse. I just play my normal game," says Maazao, for whom Russian heavyweights CSKA Moscow have already made a lucrative offer.
French capital club Paris Saint-Germain are also said to be interested in acquiring his services. "[PSG] President [Charles] Villeneuve did in fact call me to say that some agents had come to see him about me. But I don't even have an agent!"
Nor is the 20-year-old is any hurry to move, believing that he has fulfilled just 50 per cent of his potential and that Lokeren may well be the best place for him to continue his progression. The player, whose long-term dream is to join his hero Emmanuel Adebayor at English side Arsenal, has "the potential to make as much progress as (Anderlecht's Moroccan star) Mbark Boussoufa", according to coach Leekens.
In the meantime, finishing the season as the league's top-scorer would be ample reward in itself. "To be up there at the top of the scorers' charts with the likes of Dieumerci Mbokani is a huge source of pleasure," says Maazao, who refuses to get carried away, even after his flying start to the campaign. "I'm not even thinking about claiming the top-scorers' title yet, but to win it would be fantastic."