Football player, imam, Samaritan: Zakaria Aboukhlal does it all at Qatar 2022

Portugal were running in circles and they could not break the sturdy Moroccan defence as the clock was slowly ticking down. Throwing everything at the attack, they forgot about defence. And this is how, in the 96th minute of the quarter-final at Qatar 2022, Zakaria Aboukhlal found himself in a one-on-one situation with Portugal goalkeeper Diogo Costa.

The speed was dazzling, as Aboukhlal really tried his best, but he stuttered in front of the goal and could only try a lob, which was duly rejected by Costa. It could have been costly, it could have been decisive. Yet Morocco did not falter and held the fort until the last whistle. History was written and they were the first African team in history to seal a place in the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup.

The camera immediately zoomed in on Aboukhlal, who went down on his knees and kissed the grass, saying a prayer. A practicing Muslim, Aboukhlal was thanking divinity for the gift and for the amazing performance secured by Morocco, impressing once again with his maturity that made him a key part of Walid Regragui’s team at Qatar 2022, even if he was not a starter in Morocco’s side.

But the path for Aboukhlal to Qatar 2022 was full of controversy and was marred by challenged. Born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Aboukhlal has a Moroccan mother and Libyan father, making him eligible for three countries. He started football at Willem II Tilburg, a Dutch side, then moved to PSV Eindhoven, a team renowned for its academy.

His potential was immediately earmarked and represented the Dutch Under-17, Under-18, Under-19 and Under-20 squads, but he made the decision to represent Morocco at a senior level when he was a small kid.

That prompted a huge backlash from Libya and its fans, who started a torrent of insults and invectives, forcing the young player to close his social media accounts and focus on football.

“It even got to threats,” he said. “It was enough to make me lock my profile for a while. I wasn’t afraid, but you need to avoid so much negativity.”

His story is, undoubtedly, nothing short of amazing. One of the youngest players in Morocco’s squad at Qatar 2022, Aboukhlal is delivering excellent maturity at 22 years old and has become a key part of the squad, despite not being a starter. Used as a super-sub by both Regragui and former coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, Aboukhlal has always delivered in superb fashion.

It also has something to do with his personality and his beliefs, who were passed to him by his family. His mother, Lamya, was a former African athletics champion with Morocco, while his father Tarek founded an amateur club in 2008 for his son to play in after RKC Waalwijk had scrapped their youth academy amid financial turmoil.

Both practicing Muslims, they passed the baton to their son, who even features as an Imam in a local mosque in Amsterdam. Before signing for French side Toulouse this summer, he even led the prayers in the Grand Mosque of the Dutch capital on the occasion of Laylat al-Qadr in the month of Ramadan. His voice was especially praised due to its melodic tone, as he became extremely popular in the Muslim community in Amsterdam.

“When you leave home as a footballer, it often chooses to take the wrong path: going out, discos. In my case, I chose the education that my parents instilled in me: religion, traditions and values,” said Aboukhlal.

A local hero in Morocco and for all the Islamic world, Aboukhlal has become a mainstay both for the national team and at club level, scoring three goals in 15 matches for Toulouse this season. Close to missing the FIFA World Cup due to injury, Aboukhlal was also the player who scored the second goal against Belgium, bringing huge glory for Morocco at Qatar 2022.

His calm demeanor and personality also made him become one of the most popular Moroccan players on social media, with Aboukhlal gaining more than one million followers during the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

But it was not only due to football. In September 2022, he inaugurated a football field in Casablanca for the children of the association “SOS Children’s Villages Dar Bouazza”.

“My parents instilled in me the values ​​of sharing and solidarity and I am very sensitive to the condition of children. By offering this football field to the children of the SOS Children’s Village Dar Bouazza, I hope that they will have as much fun playing football as I have myself,” said Aboukhlal back then.

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