Morocco have become the first team to be knocked out of the World Cup after losing to Portugal. However, for Schalke’s Moroccan midfielder Amine Harit, there is plenty to be optimistic about.
Two years ago, Amine Harit would probably have looked at you in bemusement if you told him he would be playing for Morocco at the World Cup in Russia. The then-19-year-old was struggling to break through at French side Nantes, and question marks hung over his attitude and dedication to football.
Fast forward to now and Harit – who joined Schalke at the start of last season – appears a totally different player both on and off the field. He has established himself as one of his country's key performers and carries himself with a maturity beyond his years. It is a sign of how far the young midfielder has come that he can be self-critical in the wake of Morocco's World Cup elimination. Merely being here isn't enough.
"It's a shame, because we deserved more than this defeat. We played a very good game against a Portugal side who are the European champions," Harit told DW after Wednesday's match. "I think we only have ourselves to blame, we had the chances to win but we didn't do it."
There is a strange irony in the fact that the turning point in Harit's meteoric rise came when he was representing France – the country of his birth – at the European Under-19 Championship in Germany. Lining up alongside current France World Cup star Kylian Mbappe, the cherubic Harit stole the show, popping up with two assists in Les Bleus' final win over Italy and gaining a host of admirers.
Swapping national colors
An €8 million ($9.3 million) move to Schalke followed the next summer and with it, a dilemma: stick with France or switch allegiance to Morocco, where both of his parents were born. After much deliberation, Harit opted for the latter. That decision, as we now know, proved to be prescient, with the World Cup offering him the next step up in his career.
"It's important for us to play in a competition like this to gain experience," Harit said. "I hope we'll be ready [to do better] at the next World Cup."
Appearing in this tournament for the first time in 20 years, Morocco are currently enjoying a resurgence after years in the international doldrums. Their success under coach Herve Renard is founded on a solid defense – the Atlas Lions conceded just one goal in African World Cup qualifying – and giving young flair players like Harit and Ajax's Hakim Ziyach the freedom to roam and run with the ball.
Amine Harit (second from right) is capable of giving opposition defenses fits, like here against Iran
"We have lots of good young players," Harit said. "It's up to us to continue the work that's been in place for several years. We have to continue to bring in players who have more experience, so we are able to compete at the next World Cup."
Fan favorite in Gelsenkirchen
But that is four years away, giving Harit plenty of time to focus on his club football. He has already taken the Bundesliga by storm, being named the league's rookie of the season and endearing himself to the Schalke faithful with some dazzling displays – none more so than in the dramatic 4-4 draw with the club's arch rivals Borussia Dortmund last November.
Schalke were 4-0 down when Harit came off the bench and he didn't disappoint, scoring one and tormenting the Dortmund defense with his probing runs. He even carried on through the pain of a gashed calf, his commitment to the cause earning him high praise from coach Domenico Tedesco.
Indeed, Harit has been thriving under the nurturing wing of Tedesco, whose ability to get the best out of his players saw Schalke finish second in the Bundesliga last season and claim a place in next year's Champions League.
"I need to continue to progress and work hard in training to keep moving forward," said Harit, who made 31 appearances for the Royal Blues in 2017-18. "We have an important season ahead of us. I hope it will go well."
It is not surprising that Harit's performances have been catching the eye of a host of major European clubs, with Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich vying for his signature even before he moved to Schalke. But the skillful midfielder insists he is "very happy" in Gelsenkirchen.
"For the moment, I'm a Schalke player," he said. "It's going well and God willing, I'm going to stay at Schalke for now."