Aged just 13, Nordin Amrabat received news that would change his life forever.

Ajax were letting him go. Due, in part, to missing a chunk of playing time as a result of contracting Osgood-Schlatter Disease in his knees, the youngster was seemingly on the footballing scrapheap before his career had begun.

“It was hard,” Amrabat recalled in an interview with “I trained at the Sportcomplex De Toekomst, which is a few hundred metres from the Amsterdam ArenA. You can see the stadium, it’s a big dream to play there. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it at Ajax, but I’m happy where I am now.”

Fast forward more than a decade and the flying Moroccan winger has every reason to be content with his career to date. After cleaning the floors of a local school and washing dishes in a restaurant following his release from the Dutch giants, Amrabat was making plans to study Management, Economics and Law, but was discovered playing amateur football by Dutch second-tier side Omniworld. Within two years, he was playing UEFA Champions League football for the country’s champions PSV Eindhoven and would later go on to win trophies at Turkish giants Galatasaray.

What was the secret behind his rapid rise?

“I’m a humble guy, I always do my best,” Amrabat said. “Whether I’m playing in an amateur team, cleaning dishes or playing in the Champions League, everything that you do in life you need to be focused at 100 per cent, and that’s what I always do.”

Now at Watford in the English Premier League, where he is “very happy” in a “good, competitive competition”, the forward seems to have been driven on by those early setbacks. Another motivating factor behind the Moroccan’s ambition is a tournament that will turn 20 years old by the time the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ comes around: France 1998. While still a starry-eyed schoolboy in the Netherlands, a young Amrabat watched his Moroccan idols impress at the World Cup two decades ago.

“I remember the game against Scotland (a 3-0 win for the Atlas Lions) – it was a good match,” Amrabat recalled with clear fondness in his voice. “Everyone was excited and enjoyed it a lot. I also remember the game against Brazil, who had Ronaldo, Morocco lost 3-0. There was a good goal by [Mustafa] Hadji against Norway, too.”

Football has a way of throwing up some remarkable coincidences and, after idolising the former Deportivo La Coruña and Aston Villa schemer, Amrabat now spends every international break with him.

“Hadji was one of my favourite players,” Amrabat smiled. “He’s now our assistant coach in the national team – a fantastic guy. In the beginning, it was special, but now he’s one of us!”

Atlas Lions roaring in Russia?

Morocco have not returned to the global stage since those heady days of Hadji, Nourredine Naybet and Co, something that Amrabat and his team-mates are looking to rectify in the final round of African qualifiers for Russia 2018. Group C contains the Atlas Lions, as well as Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, with the latter currently serving a suspension until further notice.

“African football is always different,” Amrabat said. “The opponents are always strong, fast and can play good football. At the moment, there are a number of foreign coaches who are technically good. It is hard to win, African football isn’t easy. We have a good group, coach and staff and a good mentality – hopefully, we can reach Russia.”

The nation’s supporters have waited almost two decades to reach a global finals. Amrabat knows the excitement that reaching a World Cup can bring, the possible future stars it can inspire. For the Moroccan winger, helping his nation reach Russia and in the process emulating his idol Hadji would be another remarkable step on a journey that almost ended before it began.

“It would be fantastic, for sure,” Amrabat concluded. “Everybody in the country would be happy, and hopefully, we can make this dream come true.”