Wednesday 13 April 2016, 08:48

El Arabi: Renard's arrival has boosted Morocco

****“Staying grounded; that’s my speciality. I’m surprised at how well I’ve been doing, but I’m not getting carried away about it. I’m like a little kid. I’m just so happy to be playing in Ligue 1.”

Those words, spoken in 2010, belong to Youssef El Arabi, who at the time was in the middle of a purple patch with his beloved hometown club Caen, which had just been promoted to the French top flight. Now 29, the goals are still coming for the Moroccan forward, both for his current club, Liga outfit Granada, and his national team, not that his continued success in front of goal has changed him in any way.

“It’s not something that makes me a star,” he told “A star is someone who plays for a big club, who plays in the World Cup and the Champions League. I just see myself as your average front man, as a mere footballer who has the privilege of making a living out of the thing he loves doing most, and who hopes to keep on doing it for as long as possible. That’s all I am.”

The only thing is, the striker’s statistics have got better and better over the years. Since the 2010/11 season, El Arabi has never scored less than ten goals a season. After spending a year in Saudi Arabia with Al Hilal, he moved to his Spanish employers in 2012, and has just this year become the leading goalscorer in their history. For his country, meanwhile, he has struck an impressive 15 goals in 34 appearances.

“It’s not bad, but seeing as you’ve mentioned records, I’m still a long way away from Ahmed Faras and his 42 goals. And at the rate I’m scoring – a goal every two games – I’ll need to be very patient if I’m going to get there,” he joked. “In the meantime, I’ll settle for us having qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations. That’s not bad going.”

Given the tough times Morocco have been through lately, it is quite an achievement. Absent from the FIFA World Cup™ since 1998 and disqualified from hosting the African finals in 2015, the Atlas Lions are finally heading in the right direction. Earning home and away wins over Cape Verde Islands (the top-ranked African side in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking at the time) in winning their group, Morocco have become the first side to book their place at the 2017 continental finals, to be held in Gabon.

“The quality has always been there, but it just wasn’t reflected in the results, for reasons I can’t really explain,” said El Arabi. “We’ve been through a few coaches, which definitely hasn’t helped, though we’re on the right track now. The arrival of the new coach has been very positive.”

Discussing the attributes of the new man in question, Herve Renard, who took up the Morocco reins in February 2016, the striker added: “He’s proved himself in Africa. He’s won two Africa Cup of Nations with two different countries, and he’s got a good core of players in the Morocco side, who all work well together. And this time, we’ve got the results we’ve been looking for.”

Renard and Morocco can thank El Arabi for that. The Caen-born forward scored all his side’s three goals in their two wins over the Blue Sharks – a brace of penalties and a fine header – helping the national team put a smile back on the faces of their supporters.

“It doesn’t matter who scores,” said the modest El Arabi. “Winning and qualifying is all that counts. It’s great to make it to the CAN, though it’s not really an achievement any more. It’s an obligation. I hope we can go even further and win the tournament or reach the World Cup.” Mixing with the elite In the meantime, El Arabi will make do with other distinctions, such as the honour of being his club’s all-time leading goalscorer, or the post-match photos he has taken with Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, cherished images that he has posted on his Instagram account.

“They are like trophies to me,” said El Arabi. “I was a football fan before I became a player and it’s absolutely fantastic to my mind to be able to bump into football legends like Zidane. These photos are souvenirs. When I see a player or a coach I like, who’s made me dream, even if he’s been my opponent for 90 minutes, why shouldn’t I go and get a photo with them?”

Why not, indeed? El Arabi is still very much the “little kid” who is having so much fun playing the game, a kid who has fulfilled his dream and whose only ambition is to ensure it continues.

“When I was young, I was a ball boy at the Stade d’Ornano in Caen,” he recalled. “I used to picture myself being where the players were. I idolised them and I’d plead with them to give me their shirts at the end of games, often without success. That’s why there’s nothing that makes me happier today than being fortunate enough to give my shirt to a ball boy.”

Having the final word, El Arabi added: “That’s what makes me prouder than anything else. I’m not talking about going down in the history of a club or a national team – it’ll never be that - but about having become the hero of the bedtime story I used to tell myself when I was a child.”