Soufian El Hassnaoui believes his religious faith has helped keep a wretched start to his Hearts career in perspective and prevented him throwing in the towel in his search for sustained fitness.
As a result of three entirely separate injury setbacks, the Dutch-Moroccan forward has been restricted to only 19 appearances – ten starts – since joining the Tynecastle club on a three-year contract 16 months ago.
As he closes in on his latest return to action following three months out with knee ligament damage, El Hassnaoui explained how his commitment to Islam has kept him mentally strong enough to fight his way back to fitness for the third time in just over a year
“My religious faith definitely helps me get through times like this,” he told the Evening News. “It helps me with everything in life. I pray five times every day, which you have to. It helps calm me down. The first week after an injury you are really down but speaking to God is the best opportunity to feel better. For me, it’s a real boost.
“If I didn’t have my religion, I don’t know where I would be. It definitely helps you stay strong mentally and keep things in perspective. Without it, I would be nowhere. I wouldn’t be here [at Hearts] anyway. It is the most important thing in my life. It stops me getting depressed when I am injured. If you talk to God five times a day, it gets rid of any negative vibes and keeps you positive.
“I always feel better in my head after praying, even when I’m injured. In our faith, it doesn’t matter whether bad things or good things happen, you always have to be happy for what you have because there will always be cases of people suffering worse things than you. When I have an injury, I thank God that that is all it is. Of course, you always want to be fit, but injuries get you thinking about life. I could still be in Africa playing football without shoes if it wasn’t for God.”
El Hassnaoui, 25, has no family with him in Edinburgh – he lives with team-mate Alim Ozturk – but insists that the belief that God is always with him has kept his spirits up and made it easier to retain a sense of optimism. “God is my first support, then after that I have my family, of course,” he explained. “I Skype them every day but to not have your family around you is hard because I am a family person. It’s OK, though, because I have God. Everywhere I am – on the pitch, off the pitch, in recovery – God is always with me. Everybody’s got feelings, so you obviously get disappointed when you’re injured, but when you’ve got God, I think you accept it faster and you can focus on your recovery with the help of God.
“I’m optimistic about the future. I always will be. It doesn’t matter what happens. People can try and talk me into negative vibes, but it won’t happen. I have God and I will always try to be positive, even after a bad game or a bad injury.”
After having the bulk of last season wiped out by injury, El Hassnaoui’s latest setback came at a particularly unfortunate time as he felt he was just beginning to build up some momentum after battling through pre-season training while simultaneously adhering to the fasting period of Ramadan. An awkward challenge shortly after coming on as a substitute in the Deepdale friendly in July wiped out his hopes of a fresh start.
“It was doubly hard for me in pre-season because I had hard training plus Ramadan, which was no drinking and no food,” he said. “The injury happened straight after Ramadan. I made a block challenge, but the player’s leg ended up around my knee. I felt straight away that it wasn’t good, but I got up again and tried to play on. My first sprint I just stopped and lay down because I could tell there was something wrong. It’s a totally new injury – I’d never had this one before. It was just another unlucky moment for me.
“It’s not just been the last few months, it’s been hard for most of the last two years. You just have to go on because if you get in the negative vibe, it will bring you down. You just have to believe that this time it will be good and there will be no more injuries for a while. If you don’t have that belief, you’d be as well not playing football any more. I have the belief and I am working hard, so hopefully this time I can get to my full fitness and play my best games here.”
El Hassnaoui’s return to fitness has coincided with house-mate Ozturk being laid low by a hernia. “It’s switched now – I’m on the way back and he’s injured,” said the attacker. “He’s got a hernia, so it’s not as bad as the injuries I’ve had. He’s a strong person and he will be back to his peak fitness soon and playing his best for Hearts.”
SOUFIAN’S TALE OF WOE
• Missed pre-season and start of Championship campaign following groin surgery just before he arrived in June 2014.
• Made his debut as a sub in draw at Dumbarton on September 13 and, after 11 appearances – seven as a starter – sustained an ankle injury against Rangers on November 22.
• Out for three months, he returned in February and made a further eight appearances – three as a starter – in the closing months of last season. Finished the campaign with four goals.
• Returned for pre-season with high hopes of making an impact this term but suffered knee ligament damage in a friendly at Preston North End in July and has been sidelined ever since.