The success of Morocco at the World Cup will help grow the size of the fan base for African and Arab football, according to Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez.
The Atlas Lions face Portugal in the last eight of the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 on Saturday evening after defeating other European giants such as Spain and Belgium on the way. The fervour and number of their fans have been highlights of the competition and their support has extended beyond just Moroccans to Arabs across the region and the world.
“Of course, it's very good to see this team doing well on the biggest stages like the World Cup,” said Mahrez, who is Algeria’s captain and winner of the African Cup of Nations in 2019.
Morocco are the fourth African side to ever make it to a World Cup quarter-final, and they are the first Arab team to do so. They are bidding to become the first African side to reach a World Cup semi-final.
“I am really proud and really happy,” Mahrez told The National after a small-sided, quick passing, training session for Manchester City in Abu Dhabi. Many clubs from England’s Premier League have chosen to take time away during the exceptional break in the season thanks to the World Cup.
Mahrez was relaxed about the impact the time off could have of the remainder of the season after the World Cup ends on December 18. The Premier League starts again on December 26.
“There was only two weeks’ break [and then] there’s all the ones playing in the World Cup,” Mahrez said. “Everyone’s going to come back fit and come back to start again to try to achieve things.”
He signed a new two-year contract extension in the summer which will keep the 31-year-old at the club until June 2025. He is excited about his prospects for the remainder of the season.
“I’ve already scored five goals [and] I didn't play a lot, to be fair. I think the second half of the season is going to be way better for me and [bring] more goals to help the team,” he said.
He said he is also enjoying playing alongside “goal machine” Erling Haaland, signed in the summer.
“He’s a very good striker … he’s here to score goals. Really good movement and a big presence in the box. Really happy to have him,” Mahrez said of the Norwegian.
Haaland has already scored 23 goals for Manchester City in all competitions this season. He looked relaxed on the Emirates Palace pitch as he did some light training on his own before making dozens of fans, including children in City kit, happy by going over to sign autographs and pose for pictures. His teammates including Mahrez also joined in with the interactions with the fans.
For Manchester City, they have a tough fixture in the League Cup at home to fierce rivals Liverpool on December 22.
Manager Pep Guardiola told the crowd gathered after the training session, he was focused on that match first but that he was philosophical about his side’s chances of bringing more trophies to the Etihad, “especially the Premier League and arriving in the best condition in the Champions League”.
“We will see what happens … football is unpredictable [and] we will do out best,”
Most of City’s big stars have been away on international duty but there will still some familiar names in Abu Dhabi apart from Mahrez and Haaland. Veteran goalkeeper Scott Carson and German keeper Stefan Ortega are both with the squad in Abu Dhabi. As is English midfielder Cole Palmer.
Also at Emirates Palace was Sergio Gomez, who made his City debut this season, after joining from Anderlecht in Belgium.
“Now all the team has to be focused on the Premier League and the Champions League and the cups and they don't think about the World Cup you know, because the World Cup, it now is passed and now we are focused on the on the next challenge,” said 22-year old Spaniard, who can play in midfield or left-back, said.