Soufiane Rahimi: Al Ain's lodestar primed to shine in Asian Champions League final

Moroccan has galvinised UAE club's path to continental showpiece, where they face Yokohama over two legs. We speak to the coaches who helped launch his career at Raja Casablanca

Al Ain's Soufiane Rahimi is the top scorer in the 2023/24 Asian Champions League with 11 goals. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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There’s a moment in many schoolchildren’s lives when they dream of getting that bit closer to their sporting heroes. A front-row seat in the grandstand. A snatched selfie outside the stadium. For the lucky ones, maybe it’s a day as a mascot, or perched near the touchline as a ball boy.

For Soufiane Rahimi, the striker who has galvanised Al Ain’s journey to the Asian Champions League final, the heroes and role-models were part of everyday life from infancy, practically guaranteed to pass by his bedroom window all through his boyhood and into his teens. “Soufiane’s is very special story,” smiles Juan Carlos Garrido, the head coach who ushered Rahimi into adulthood and gave him his big break as a senior professional.

The uniquely special part is how and where Rahimi grew up. Home for the family was a modestly-sized house attached to the practice ground of one of Morocco’s most storied sporting institutions, Raja Club Athletic, in the Oasis district of Casablanca.

It was accommodation reserved for Mohamed ‘Youaari’ Rahimi, father to several sons and daughters, and it came with Youaari’s job with Raja Casablanca, as the club are commonly known: Chief kit-man, and much besides. Youaari, is, as Garrido learned immediately he was appointed as Raja’s head coach in 2017, “a club legend”. He was officially attached to Raja for over half a century. Beyond his duties organising equipment, he was the extrovert who cajoled and motivated generations of players, whose eye for talent and wide connections across Moroccan football meant that when he advised Raja’s recruiters on young prospects, they listened.

As it turned out, some of the best gifts Youaari bequeathed the club would come from his own household. There’s Soufiane, the star. There’s Soufiane’s younger brother, Houssine, who has come up through the ranks at Raja and into the first-team. An older sibling, Amin, assumed Youani’s job after his father’s retirement.

To grow up in that environment is to enjoy certain advantages if football is your passion and your aspiration. But it also comes with pressures. Raja‘s history sets a high bar. Scroll through the album of Youaari’s Raja memories and you cover their rise as a superclub in Africa and across the Mena region. “My dad was there for all the trophies,” Soufiane recalled to Canal+. Witnessing those triumphs, Youaari admits he harboured a private hope: “It was only a dream, but I did dream that, one day, one of my children would play for Raja.”

Soufiane would be the first. He was born in the summer of 1996, a time of vibrant celebration at Raja’s training headquarters: The club had won a first league-and-cup double. The following December, they claimed the African Champions League, the second of Raja’s three senior continental titles. Soufiane had formally enrolled in the youth system by the age of 10, and was spending some of his evenings and afternoons as a matchday ball-boy by the time the Club World Cup came to Morocco in 2013, Raja recording a landmark first for Mena football by reaching the final.

He was on the verge of Raja’s first-team by 20, but to guarantee regular football, was encouraged to join, on loan, Etoile de Casablanca, in a lower division, a club just down the road from Raja. Rahimi scored at better than a goal every two games over his season there. Once re-installed at Raja, was quickly promoted to the senior starting XI by Garrido.

“He’d shown a great attitude at a smaller club, and I had real confidence in him,” Garrido tells The National. “I gave him a tough test for his debut, away in Abidjan against Asec Mimosas in the African Confederations Cup. We won 1-0, thanks to Soufiane winning us a penalty. He played with maturity, something he always showed. Five months later, we had won the competition.”

That continental triumph, and the run to the final, has shades of the thrilling adventure Rahimi has driven Al Ain through en route to Saturday’s showdown against Yokohama F Marinos, the Japan leg of the final of Asia’s principal club competition. As a 21 year old, he became the lodestar for Raja in Africa; at 27, three years into his stint in Abu Dhabi, he has led Al Ain in Asia.

For Raja, there were vital goals in hostile West African stadiums and four assists on the way to the final. In its first leg, home to DR Congo’s Vita Club, Rahimi soared, his two goals – one a poised close-range finish, the second a rocket from distance – giving Raja an advantage they held through to a 4-3 aggregate win.

It was a breakthrough moment, recalls Garrido, a fairytale for the kid with Raja in his veins. “I’m really happy for him that he’s been so successful,” says Garrido, whose wide portfolio of jobs across the Gulf and North Africa includes a spell coaching Al Ain. “He’s a player I would back to thrive at a high level wherever he is. He would be valued in a top division in Europe; he’s now doing well at a big, ambitious club in UAE, who have really impressed by eliminating Al Hilal from the Champions League. And he’s an asset to Morocco at a time when the national team are rising.”

“Technically, Soufiane has all the characteristics you want,” adds the Spanish coach. “There’s his speed, his strength with both right and left foot. He sees the right passes and can execute them. He’s focused and he’s a battler, probably a bit less outgoing than his father but he’s been brought up with a very good attitude.”

Garrido praises Rahimi’s versatility. “What I liked was that you could play him in every position across the front line – left, right, through the middle, or as a number 10, and he would apply himself just the same. As a coach you do come across forwards who let you know they want to play in a certain position. Sofiane would adapt quickly. He has that tactical intelligence and he’s a hard worker.”

It’s an observation echoed by another of his coaches at Raja, Jamal Sellami. “He’s become an exemplary player for others, for what he has achieved and how he put his mind to what was needed for him to go far.”

The exemplar role counts for a good deal at a time when Morocco’s national team, semi-finalists at the 2022 World Cup, draw more and more heavily on players from the country’s diaspora, footballers born or largely raised in Europe. Rahimi is a pathfinder for those taking the local route to the top. He may have grown up with the privileges of having a professional training ground as his front garden, but he is still a pupil purely of the Moroccan system.

Never more so than in early 2021 in Cameroon, when Rahimi led the forward line for Morocco at the African Nations Championship, the tournament reserved only for players based at clubs in Africa. The Atlas Lions won a gold medal, he finished as the competition’s leading goalscorer and was named its outstanding individual. He recalls the words of Samuel Eto’o, the former African Footballer of the Year, when he was presented with his individual awards. “He said to me, ‘Keep working hard, you are the future of football in Africa’”.

In Africa and well beyond. Morocco’s head coach, Walid Regragui was present for the deciding leg of Al Ain’s semi-final against Al Hilal, there to watch the outstanding marksman in Asian club football’s elite competition, a striker whose 11 Champions League goals put him well ahead of the likes of Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo – CR7 was outscored by three goals to one in his duel with Rahimi in the quarter-finals – and there to see the hero whose hat-trick had broken Al Hilal’s 34-match winning run.

Having left Rahimi out of his squads for the Qatar World Cup and for this year’s Afcon, Regragui recalled him to the national team in March, for his 17th and 18th caps. He’s very much back in Morocco’s plans. He’s eager to show off an Asian Champions League winners medal to compatriots when he goes home for June’s internationals. And to make a family steeped in football as proud as they have ever been.

Updated: May 08, 2024, 11:00 AM