Something of a late developer, Moghreb Tetouan striker Zouhair Naim had to wait until he was 27 before getting his first taste of Moroccan top flight football, which came with Raja Beni Mellal in 2012.
It was the culmination of a childhood dream for the boy from Youssoufia, in southern Morocco, who in his younger years would skip gymnastics classes to pursue his passion for football, preferring to kick a ball around the streets with his friends than climb on to a pommel horse. In conversation with FIFA.com, the player reflected on the fulfilment of his long-cherished dream.
“I went through some tough times, playing for teams in my neighbourhood, amateur clubs and lower-league sides before taking my place among the big boys," Naim said. "You have to put a lot of work in if you want to turn professional.”
His big break came when Raja Beni Mellal, based in central Morocco, plucked him out of obscurity, having identified him as just the kind of player who could take them forward. Naim is grateful for the faith they showed in him.
“Raja Beni Mellal are an old club who don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “I was going through a tough patch when I joined the side. I was 25 and I was worried that I’d end my career at that level. But fate had a nice surprise in store for me and my performances helped the team move up to the second division and then win promotion to the first.”
The club’s hunch paid off handsomely as Naim propelled them into the Botola Pro, Morocco’s first division, courtesy of 17 goals in the amateur third tier and a further 12 in the second division.
Cash incentiveThe man who persuaded him to sign for Beni Mellal was former star forward Hassan Fadel, who turned out for Mallorca and Malaga in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Taking up the story, Naim said: “He restored my confidence and got me excited about the game again. He offered me 200 dollars for every goal I scored, and he asked me not to lose hope because there are a lot of players who don’t come through until quite late in their careers. The encouragement he gave me helped me play my best football.”
These days, Naim is turning it on for Moghreb Tetouan, whose fans are indebted to him for the goals that fired the club to the league title, an achievement that brought with it a place at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014.
If we start thinking about playing Real Madrid, then we’ll be heading straight for disaster. We need to take each match as it comes.
Naim’s satisfaction in being top-scorer for Moghreb as they stormed to the 2014 championship was heightened by the fact that Raja Casablanca had turned down the chance to buy him a year earlier.
Explaining what happened, Naim said: “The Raja coach Mohamed Fakhri called to say that he wanted to sign me. He said he’d get back to me within a few days to sign the contract. I agreed there and then because Raja were going to play in the Club World Cup. I didn’t hear back from him, though, and a month later I decided to join Moghreb Tetouan.”
With a Moroccan league winners’ medal now safely in his possession, Naim is looking to sparkle at the Club World Cup: “I want to be the leading scorer in the competition and take Moghreb Tetouan to a top-three finish. And if I can’t top the scoring charts, then I hope to do my job and help my teammates get some good results.”
A tough assignmentThe task awaiting Naim and his cohorts is far from easy, with Auckland City, who have picked up plenty of Club World Cup experience over the years, lying in wait for them in the opening match.
Pondering that encounter, the striker had this to say: “It’s a key game for us, and if we play well, everything will work out for us. I’ve watched all the matches they’ve played in the Club World Cup and I think we can beat them. They’re a mid-level team.”
He added: “My teammates are capable of raising their game. We’re a young side, but I can really sense how much we all want to reach the top. We’ve won two Moroccan titles in the last three years and there aren’t many sides that can do that.”
Nevertheless, Moghreb Tetouan’s form in the league this season has been shaky, causing some fans to doubt their ability to upset the old world order at the Club World Cup.
One man who does not share those concerns, however, is Naim: “We’re all thinking about the Club World Cup now, and every one of us is hoping to take part. We haven’t been getting good results in the league because we’ve been giving our all to reach the Club World Cup, which is where we’re going to show who we really are.
“Raja weren’t doing very well in the league last season, but that didn’t stop them from springing a surprise. I hope we can follow in their footsteps.”
As it turns out, the front man is a big Real Madrid fan and watches them in action in La Liga every weekend. So how does he feel about the possibility of coming face to face with his idols and trying to shake off the attention of Sergio Ramos?
“Everyone wants to play against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Ramos, Gareth Bale, Iker Casillas and Luka Modric,” he replied. “They are stars and role models for every player, but if we’re going to take them on then we need to win our other matches.”
In signing off, however, he issued this warning: “If we start thinking about playing Real Madrid, then we’ll be heading straight for disaster. We need to take each match as it comes.”
With only two goals to his name in ten outings in the league this season, Naim is eyeing the Club World Cup as the perfect opportunity to get back to doing what he does best. Moghreb fans are certainly hoping that will be the case.