Saturday 25 September 2021, 07:00

El-Mesrar: We see Brazil as just five players we want to beat

  • Soufiane El-Mesrar scored all three Morocco goals against Venezuela

  • He now bids to make more history against the mighty Brazil

  • The winger combines futsal with high-level studies

Is the third time always the charm? That depends on the circumstances. When Soufiane El-Mesrar had already bagged two goals against Venezuela in the Round of 16 at the FIFA Futsal World Cup Lithuania 2021™, he was delighted to add number three – for himself and his team – to make it 3-1 and steer Morocco towards the quarter-finals. A few days earlier, however, the Atlas Lions were desperate not to bow out of their third World Cup in the same way as the first two. At Thailand 2012 and Colombia 2016, they had had to pack their bags at the end of the first round without getting any points on the board. So when they kicked off their Lithuania 2021 campaign with a 6-0 win over Solomon Islands, they had already made it their best performance on the world stage.

"We worked hard for that and went through a lot,” El-Mesrar told of the relief and delight felt after that victory. "The result owed nothing to luck – it was the result of eight years of work with Hicham Dguig. "The federation had implemented a plan to develop futsal in Morocco and now we are enjoying the fruits of that. We’re proud of ourselves."

Not that there were too many celebrations after that opening win, or even when Morocco made history by qualifying for the next round after draws with Thailand (1-1) and Portugal (3-3). Yes, there was singing, dancing and shouting, but no-one allowed themselves to get too carried away. "It was a historic achievement to get through the first round, but we knew that all the teams who had made it through with us to the Round of 16 were strong, including Venezuela," said El-Mesrah. "It was their first World Cup and they were even more motivated that we were. So we were a little bit under pressure, a little bit scared, and we were desperate to get the match underway." When the final whistle blew to bring an end to 40 minutes of pitched battle, with the scoreboard saying 3-2 and a hat-trick for Soufiane, then it was time to let it all come pouring out, with coach Dguig even in tears.

Unbelievably, the scenes could be even more emotional if Morocco were to go further in the competition, but their next opponents in Vilnius are none other than Brazil – the country with the best-ever record in the sport and a squad that has them lining up as favourites to lift the trophy once more. It represents an immense challenge for the winger, but one that he is really looking forward to. "If you play in three World Cups but you never come up against Brazil, it's frustrating!," he said. "I’m finally getting the chance to do it for the first time." While giving A Seleção the respect that they deserve, he certainly does not believe for a second that the result is a foregone conclusion. "Everyone knows the team, what they’ve won, the star players they’ve got," he said. "We know it’ll be a tough match and that we’ll be under pressure, and we’ll have to defend well. It’ll be very difficult for us but we’re going to have to make sure that it’s just as difficult for them." And even if the match does indeed pan out the way most people expect it to, the Moroccans will be able to return home with their heads held high and with plenty of fond memories to look back on. El-Mesrar has already achieved a great deal outside of futsal, having earned a degree in organic chemistry as well as an IT networks diploma, despite spending plenty of time on the football pitch back in his hometown of Kenitra. He was an adept of the 11-a-side game but the sheer weight of training sessions and matches alongside his studies meant that something had to give. "It got to a point where it was no longer possible to combine the two and I ended up having to make a choice," he explained. He decided to opt for the indoor version of the sport so that he could still enjoy playing the round-ball game without compromising his studies. Little did he know that ten years on, his futsal CV would be even more impressive than his academic one.

"If someone had said to me back in 2010 that I would play at the World Cup – actually three World Cups! – and face Brazil in the quarter-finals, I’d have said they were crazy,” said El-Mesrar, who plays his domestic futsal with ACCS alongside such veritable monuments of the sport as Carlos Ortiz and Ricardinho. His club career affords him a certain status when representing his country, as does his experience on the biggest of stages in tournaments past. "I have responsibilities – in fact I always have," said a man who certainly plays his part in this respect along with captain Youssef El-Mazray. "In this team, any player who’s already played in a World Cup needs to help their younger team-mates or the ones who have less experience and are turning out at this level for the first time." And what will El-Mesrah and El-Mazray have to say in the changing rooms before they go out to play the most important match in the history of Moroccan futsal? "When you come up against stars, your focus obviously goes up a level,” said the former. “But when the match gets underway, regardless of their past and their status, we don’t see the names on the jerseys or think about their reputations. They’re just five players that we want to beat.”

Morocco celebrate their 2nd goal