Mbark Boussoufa: Al Jazira having nothing to lose when they go up against Real Madrid at Club World Cup
The Moroccan midfielder relishing the opportunity the Arabian Gulf League champions have against Zinedine Zidane's men on Wednesday in the semi-finals in Abu Dhabi.
Compared to the majority of his teammates, Mbark Boussoufa should have a deeper understanding of what awaits on Wednesday, when Al Jazira take on Real Madrid in the Fifa Club World Cup semi-final.
The Moroccan once played against the Spanish giants at the Bernabeu, then representing Belgium’s Anderlecht at a friendly tournament, although that was around a decade ago.
Now, as one of the more experienced members of Henk ten Cate’s groundbreaking squad, Boussoufa will be charged with helping his current team cope, somehow, with the current champions of Europe in a match that matters much.
The two sides face off at Zayed Sports City, the meeting confirmed once Ali Mabkhout fired Jazira past Urawa Red Diamonds late on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi.
The UAE striker scored the game’s only goal, but Boussoufa shone for the tournament's host representatives, too.
Madrid are an altogether different proposition, though. The reigning Club World Cup champions warmed up for the defence of their trophy by hitting Sevilla for five in the Primera Liga around the same time Jazira were preparing for Urawa.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale have all travelled with the squad that left Spain for the Emirates on Sunday.
Having seen a lot at age 33, Boussoufa understands better than most the challenge ahead.
No UAE club had previously reached this stage of the Club World Cup, not least play against Madrid. Nevertheless, the three-time Belgian footballer of the year urges his young Jazira team to do what they have done thus far: have faith.
“I don’t think many believed we’d win today’s game either, so anything’s possible,” Boussoufa said following the 1-0 victory against Urawa.
“But of course, we have major respect for Real Madrid. They are one of the best teams in the world and it’s an honour to play against them.
“We respect them, but as footballers we don’t have any reason to fear anything. We’ll just enjoy the game and enjoy being on such a big stage. For a small country and a small club in the UAE to come on to the world stage like this is just fantastic.
“A UAE team has never made it to the semi-final so we’ve written history and it’s a great feeling. We’ll just take it day-by-day and get ready for the game.”
Focusing on preparing well is probably easy said than done. On Saturday, manager Henk ten Cate said the entire country should be proud of his players; Mabkhout also declared that Jazira are playing not only for themselves, but the whole of the UAE.
Boussoufa knows the magnitude of the occasion. Not surprising given his career until this point, he seems sure to take it in his stride.
“I played before against Real a long time ago for the Santiago Bernabeu Cup when I was at Anderlecht, when I was just 21 or 22,” he said. “I know what it is. To play against one of the best teams in the world is an honour, especially for the boys.
“I have a little more experience because I’ve played Champions League and Europa League and, of course, you meet big teams. But for them, especially the local boys, it’s a dream to play against Real Madrid.”
Jazira will hope to embrace the moment when the dream becomes reality on Wednesday.
The UAE champions were never certain to travel this far, but displayed sufficient resolve to see off New Zealand’s Auckland City in last week’s tournament opener - goalkeeper Ali Kasheif was named man of the match - before deservedly dispatching Urawa.
Conversely, perhaps Madrid’s standing in world football alleviates the strain, if only a little.
“What we did already is fantastic, so it’s just nice to play Real and all these big players,” Boussoufa said.
“I don’t think there’s any extra pressure. Because we are automatically the underdogs.”
Updated: December 10, 2017 10:08 PM