A football player as a father. A former Morocco international as an uncle. Football was running in the veins for Nayef Aguerd, but it could have turned out very differently for the Morocco stalwart, who has become an integrant part of the first-ever African team to qualify for the semi-finals at the FIFA World Cup.
“My dream was to become better than my father. In my family, there is a lot of talk about how him and my uncle played football, so that served as a good motivation,” said Aguerd in an interview for “So Foot”.
And for sure, he did. His father, Said, only played for the local club Kenitra, so that is one thing that Nayef checked from his bucket list. But it could have turned out very differently indeed, because his parents, especially his mother, who worked in a kindergarten, had a totally different idea about Aguerd’s future.
It was school, school and more school for the young Nayef, as football was banned by his mother, despite being a huge passion. Eventually, he made his first steps in the Kenitra youth system, before he finally started to play in a more professional setting aged 13 years old.
“It was even hard for me to go to the stadium and watch matches. It was complicated with my mother, she was basically anti-football. I grew up with my mum since I was nine years old, she was the boss of the house. We worked a lot with her to accept I was going to be a football player.”
“She did not understand how football can be one’s job. On Sundays, it was out of the question for me to leave home before I had finished my homework. So, I got up very, very early to finish them before noon and be able to play football. I even played in the house, it was especially not necessary to break vases. We were in an apartment, it annoyed my mother. I breathed football,” said Aguerd.
At that moment, he entered the renowned King Mohammed VI Football Academy, one that has provided Morocco with the core of the current team at Qatar 2022, which made so much history. He even convinced his mother he was good enough to do that and would continue his studies.
But he had to convince others that he could be as good. Nasser Larguet, the director of the Mohamed VI Academy put his reputation on the line when he came to the house of the Aguerd family to convince Nayef’s mother that he was going to become very good, that he has the talent to do it.
Eventually, Larguet did that, but two years later, Nayef’s progression stalled. He was a kid and had a sweet tooth for chocolate. But it was not only that, it looked like something was missing.
“It was forbidden to bring in junk food, like chocolate or sweets. Except that at the age of 12-13, you want to eat some from time to time. For us, it was the diet: you had to eat properly, pay attention to it. It happened to us that we were caught by the director with chocolates hidden under the T-shirt. The punishments were harsh: we got up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. to go for a run, in order to push us not to do it again. Today, we understood, but it’s really not easy to sacrifice so young,” said Aguerd.
After that episode, Larguet had a frank exchange with Aguerd. It was his way or the highway, because the potential could not be fulfilled on the pitch. And the player duly understood and managed to take the best decision of his life.
“I warned him on two occasions that if he doesn’t improve, he will lose his place in the academy. It was a test to see how he would respond. He was good technically but I pushed him hard because I knew he could be even better,” said Larguet for “The Athletic”.
Eventually, it was Aguerd who made another sacrifice. He started football as a creative midfielder, as a number 10, who orchestrated the attacks. But others were better than him, so he became a central defender.
“‘Coach, we have so many good midfielders but we don’t have many defenders. I can stand out more from that position’. He was 15 and this happened 12 months after I warned him about his place in the academy. He took a risk and it’s the best decision he made,” continued Larguet.
And this is how Aguerd’s career took off. After four years at FUS Rabat, he joined French side Dijon in 2018, where he spent only two seasons. A bigger side, Rennes, identified his potential and signed him for €5 million.
Two years later, Aguerd was the subject of another transfer, this time for West Ham United, who forked out €35 million, making him one of the most expensive Morocco players ever.
An injury derailed the start of the season for Aguerd, who missed almost three months and could have been absent for the FIFA World Cup. He bounced back in time and led a defence that conceded a single goal in five matches – his own goal against Canada.
Yet neither Belgium, nor Croatia, Spain or Portugal could break Morocco’s defence. For a player like Aguerd, that is a huge achievement, likewise for the African team, who wrote history at Qatar 2022.