Monday 05 March 2018, 20:11

Boussoufa: We’re going to Russia to compete

  • ​Mbark Boussoufa was a key contributor in helping Morocco return to the FIFA World Cup

  • Boussoufa: "We're setting our sights on the second round"

  • Morocco in Group B with Portugal, Spain and IR Iran

2017 was quite a year for Mbark Boussoufa, one in which the Moroccan international played a big part in his country’s qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and one that ended with him helping Al Jazira of the United Arab Emirates take fourth place at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2017.

The 33-year-old midfielder featured in all the Atlas Lions’ matches in the final round of the African qualifiers for Russia 2018, and is hoping to do the same when his side takes on Portugal, Spain and IR Iran in the group phase at this year’s world finals. sat down with Boussoufa to ask him about Morocco’s chances at Russia 2018 and his return to a country where he spent six seasons playing for Anzhi Makhachkala and then Lokomotiv Moscow, before packing his bags for Abu Dhabi in 2016. What’s your take on the Final Draw for Russia 2018? What are Morocco chances against Portugal, Spain and IR Iran? Mbark Boussoufa: It’s a tough group but we have to give it our very best shot. The team will be ready to put in a good performance. We’re going to come up against some great teams and we know what to expect. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

What goals do you have at Russia 2018? If we’re not setting our sights on a place in the second round, then we might as well stay at home. We’re not going to the World Cup just to take part but to show what we’re capable of. We’re going to do all we can to get past the first round.

What’s your view on your opening game, against IR Iran? IR Iran won’t be easy opponents. The Iranians finished top of their group in the Asian qualifiers and let very few goals in. Everyone will be focusing on the competition and even more on that group. We have to be ready to take on any team, from the first match to the last. The opening match is going to be decisive in terms of what lies ahead.

You were only two years old when Morocco produced their best ever World Cup performance at Mexico 1986. What do you remember of that competition? There are a lot of great stories about that 1986 team. It was one of Moroccan football’s finest generations. They reached the second round but lost narrowly to West Germany (to a goal scored in the 88th minute). It was a great performance for Morocco, and though I don’t remember that much about the competition, I do know the players. I’ve seen the photos and videos, and I’ve met some of the players from the time, like Aziz Bouderbala, who’s currently with the national team.

Morocco beat Portugal 3-1 at Mexico 1986. Can you produce the same performance this year? It’s hard to say because Portugal are the European champions and have one of the best players in the world. They are a very good side and they have a good coach. It’ll be a different game to the one in Mexico. On paper, they’re better than the 1986 team, but we’ll see what happens. In any case, we’ll be ready to take on anyone.

What memories do you have of France 1998, which was Morocco’s last World Cup appearance? I remember it well even if I was only 13 at the time, and I can still recall the exploits of Mustapha Hadji and Salaheddine Bassir, though they failed to reach the second round. Hadji is now an assistant to the national team head coach and shares his experience with us. Obviously we’ve watched videos of that team.

You faced the Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo and several members of the Spain team at last year’s Club World Cup. Did that give you a taste of what to expect against Portugal and Spain? The World Cup is a different competition, though Real Madrid are one of the best clubs in the world. You can’t always use club performances to predict what’s going to happen in internationals. Cristiano Ronaldo is an amazing champion, but it’s a different story with the national team.

You played in Russia for six seasons. What’s your view of that whole experience? I enjoyed six amazing years in Moscow. It’s a beautiful city and one of the biggest in Europe. The Russian league is one of the best too. At the time there were eight clubs fighting it out for the title, with some great foreign players around too. I learned a lot on a personal and professional level.

What are your expectations of Russia 2018? The country has invested a lot in football in these last few years and has put in a huge effort to develop the sport. Personally, I’m delighted that the World Cup is being held in Russia to give Russian football support.

Can you tell us more about your nickname, ‘The King of the Assists’? I got it in Belgium, because I had a lot of assists every season there. I like scoring but setting up other players is what I’m best at. I find it a lot nicer than scoring myself. I hope to set up a lot in Russia.

Talking of your gift for giving, you have a foundation in your own name. Can you tell us more about it? We set up the foundation when I was in Belgium to help people in need. A lot of people don’t have the chance to be football players like us and we have to help them. I grew up in a society that encourages people to help others, and it’s also because of my religious beliefs that I like others and want to help them. I hope to help out with a number of humanitarian projects in the future.

Morocco's matches at Russia 2018:

Morocco-IR Iran ( Friday 15 June, Saint Petersburg Stadium, Saint Petersburg, 18:00 local time)

Portugal-Morocco (Wednesday 20 June, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, 15:00 local time)

Spain-Morocco (Monday 25 June, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad, 20:00 local time)

Learn more about Morocco here.