CASABLANCA: Ayoub El-Kaabi hopes to complete a meteoric rise from lower league to international football by helping hosts Morocco defeat Nigeria Sunday in the African Nations Championship (CHAN) final.
Few outside the north African kingdom had heard of the 24-year-old striker before the mid January kick-off of the biennial tournament restricted to footballers playing in their country of birth.
Now, most African football followers from Cairo to Cape Town know El-Kaabi, the 1.82-meter goalmouth predator who has scored a record eight goals in a single edition of the CHAN.
Despite starting only two of three group games, the Moroccan equalled the five-goal benchmark set by Zambian Given Singuluma in the Ivory Coast nine years ago.
He then raised the bar by opening the scoring in a quarter-final victory over Namibia and bagged a brace as Morocco overcame Libya after extra time to reach the final.
His amazing haul came just a year after he scoring 25 goals in 33 matches as Racing Casablanca won promotion to the first division.
Those scoring exploits caught the attention of top-flight outfit Renaissance Berkane, who signed El-Kaabi and have been rewarded by 11 goals from him in 17 matches.
Before the fifth CHAN began, most of the talk around the Moroccan attack centered on Achraf Bencharki, the leading scorer for 2017 CAF Champions League winners Wydad Casablanca.
But Saudi Arabia-bound Bencharki, who joins Al-Hilal after the CHAN, has been continually overshadowed by El-Kaabi.
“Ayoub is the complete striker, a fantastic footballer,” Bencharki told AFP. “With him in the team, defeating Nigeria and winning the CHAN is a realistic goal.”
Midfielder Walid El-Karti weighed in: “El-Kaabi is such a humble footballer and a great team person. He remains grounded after individual feats, like his hat-trick against Guinea.”
Morocco and Nigeria met in a 2014 CHAN quarter-final with the west Africans overturning a three-goal half-time deficit to triumph 4-3 after extra time in South Africa.
Nigerian Rabiu Ali, at 37 the second oldest 2018 CHAN footballer, scored during that remarkable comeback and is a likely starter against Morocco at the Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca.
His teammates Anthony Okpotu and Gabriel Okechukwu could trouble the hosts with their huge physiques, pace and directness, which have already having yielded two goals each.
Both finalists qualified with four victories and a draw and Nigeria appear capable of at least running Morocco close in a competition that has produced largely one-sided finals.
The Democratic Republic of Congo won the 2009 and 2016 title deciders by margins of two and three goals, and Tunisia triumphed by three goals in 2011.
Libya, the 2014 champions, were the exception, edging Ghana on penalties after a goalless final.
Results: Group A — Mauritania 4-0, Guinea 3-1, Sudan 0-0; quarter-finals — Namibia 2-0; semifinals: Libya 3-1 aet
Scorers: Ayoub el Kaabi (8), Ismail el Haddad, Achraf Bencharki, Salaheddine Saidi, Walid el Karti (pen)
Captain: Badr Benoun (center-back)
Coach: Jamal Sellami (MAR)
Record: P12 W6 D4 L2 F23 A10
Best finish: quarter-finals, 2014
Africa/world rankings: 4/39
Results: Group C — Rwanda 0-0, Libya 1-0, Equatorial Guinea 3-1; quarter-finals — Angola 2-1; semifinals: Sudan 1-0
Scorers: Okechukwu Gabriel, Anthony Okpotu (both 2), Sunday Faleye, Ekundayo Ojo, Rabiu Ali (pen)
Captain: Ikechukwu Ezenwa (goalkeeper)
Coach: Salisu Yusuf (NGR)
Record: P14 W9 D3 L2 F25 A13
Best finish: third, 2014
Africa/world rankings: 9/51