What is your earliest memory of playing football as a kid?
I started very young, when I was just three or four. My dad played football, too, and before every game — whether he was playing with friends or with the superstar footballers of Morocco — he would take me along to watch. When the match ended, he would stay with me and teach me some skills.
Was he your first footballing hero?
He was — and he still is. He used to play with his left foot, like me, and he taught me a lot. He calls me for every game and he still loves football, and I think he’s very happy and proud of me because it was one of his dreams to have a football player in the family.
Do you have other heroes?
I have many. Cristiano Ronaldo is one, and I’m lucky because he is one of my good friends as well as being one of the greatest players ever. I also have many Moroccan friends and heroes, but if I tried to name them all we’d be here forever!
What was your ‘big break’ in the world of football?
I think the moment that everything changed for me was when I went to France from Morocco when I was 17. I went to Le Havre, which has one of the best training academies in all the world. Paul Pogba was there, Benjamin Mendy — who now plays for Manchester City — was there. Riyad Mahrez, too. When I went there everything changed for me — it was the moment when I realised that I really wanted to be a professional and it was an amazing experience, one of the best times of my life.
Where did you go next?
I went to play for FC Istres in France for three years, and after that I went to the Olympic games in London with the national Moroccan team — I was the captain. When I was there, a club from the UAE contacted my agent and that’s how I came here.
What’s a typical day for you?
We do a lot of training, pretty much every day. Sometimes when we have a match they give us a day off afterwards, and on that day off I use it to recover, because it’s important for football players to sleep well and eat well. Sometimes I might see my family or go to the cinema, I might go out for a coffee or have dinner with friends. Or I might just stay home and watch Netflix.
Talk us through a match day.
The day before the match we all go to training camp; all the team. We train to prepare for the game. We have dinner, and breakfast and lunch the next day, we meet with the coach and then we go to the game all together in the same bus.
What would you like to do after you football career?
I try to stay in good shape physically because I think if you want to have a long career you have to take care of yourself. Football is what I do, and I want to play the longest I possibly can at the top level, so I have to take care of what I eat, how many hours I sleep, and I try to take every effort to be at the top of my game. After that, I’d maybe like to coach. It’s something I think about a lot, because I’d really like to stay in the world of football.
Footballers often seem to have injuries that take forever to heal — why is that?
That’s just one of the worst parts of the sport. Sometimes the injuries force you to stop for months, sometimes a year or even more. It’s one of the downsides of football, but I think now with all the technologies and all the amazing doctors we have, most injuries can be fixed, it’s not like the olden days. I think even the worst injuries can be resolved and a player will get back on the pitch, even if it does take a year.
Do players typically get a bonus if they win a match?
Yes, and it can be more if it’s an important game — like if it’s against a team at the same level as you. They offer the bonus to push the players to concentrate harder, but it’s not the main motivation. I don’t think money can ever be the only motivation for a footballer.
What do you spend it on?
Some of the guys, when we get a good bonus, do crazy things with the money, but me, I like my style. My weakness is for shoes — I’m addicted to shoes and I have a lot of them, so sometimes I’ll go mad and find a rare, limited-edition pair with my bonus.
If you could put together your all-time, all-star team, who would be your first three picks?
I think I would choose Maradona, Lionel Messi and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. I think we are lucky to be able to see such amazing players as Messi and Ronaldo at the moment.
Which do players fear most: a bad referee or an angry manager?
Angry manager. A bad referee is only gong to affect you for one match, but if you have an angry coach or manager you might have him for a while. But yeah, sometimes we do have a bad ref. Luckily, they change every game so you only have to put up with it once.
Finally, what do you say to people who complain about Ronaldo and Messi and other top players earning multimillion salaries?
I think they don’t know about them very well. These players suffer a lot, they work a lot and they deserve that money. When you play football you don’t have the same life as other people. You might have to leave home as young as eight or nine years old to start at an academy, and then when you’re older you have to work so hard to be the best — all day and sometimes into the night. They can’t do normal things like go to the supermarket — it’s a crazy life.