Faycal Rherras today revealed he was hospitalised with malaria whilst on international duty with Morocco three weeks ago. The Hearts defender spent three days on a drip under close medical observation after contracting the potentially fatal disease in Equatorial Guinea.
He is now fully recovered and returns to the Hearts squad for this evening’s league trip to Kilmarnock. He missed the 2-0 victory over Dundee ten days ago as he was still feeling the effects of an illness which kills more than one million people every year.
Malaria is a serious tropical disease spread by mosquitoes. If not diagnosed and treated promptly, it can be deadly. One mosquito bite is all it takes for a human to become infected and 90 per cent of cases occur in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Rherras jetted off to that region following Hearts’ 3-1 win against Motherwell at Fir Park on September 30. He arrived in Equatorial Guinea with the Morocco squad for a week-long training camp in preparation for their World Cup qualifier in neighbouring Gabon.
Just 24 hours later, he began feeling unwell and quickly realised that the problem was more than just a straightforward stomach bug.
“Before the game against Gabon, I was in Guinea for one week,” he told the Evening News in an exclusive interview at Hearts’ Riccarton training base. “After the first day I felt okay. I went to sleep, woke up and I didn’t feel good. I trained but it was difficult. One sprint and I was dead. I went to speak with the coach after training and said: ‘Coach, I am sick.’
“I had to wait but then I went to hospital to be analysed and they told me it was a little malaria. I went back to Morocco and stayed in hospital there. I stayed in hospital in Morocco for three days for good treatment. I was on a drip but now I feel well again.”
The 23-year-old, who joined Hearts in June on a three-year contract after leaving the Belgian club Sint-Truiden, admitted he initially feared the worst. Thankfully, doctors both in Gabon and in his homeland are well equipped to combat malaria.
“Malaria is a big problem and I was scared,” he continued. “With the drip, I got better and now it’s finished. The doctors were very quick. When I got back to Scotland I went to hospital for another check and everything is clear.”
Illness denied him what would have been a second senior cap for Morocco. He was scheduled to play right-back against Gabon, but was lying in a hospital bed by the time the game kicked-off. The 0-0 final scoreline was viewed as a reasonable result by the Moroccans.
“Morocco play the same tactics as Hearts. I play left-back or right-back with them. Against Gabon I would have played right-back. For me, it’s no problem. Left-back and right-back are the same.”
Indeed, it is consistent form at Tynecastle which saw the player promoted from the Morocco Under-23 squad to the senior group in August.
“Maybe, yes. Last year, I played in Belgium in the top league but I didn’t get into the Morocco squad. I played with the under-23 team,” he recalled. “Now I am in Scotland and playing at a good level. There are big games against Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers in this league. Celtic also play in the Champions League. The Morocco coach sees these games and he called me into the senior national team.
“It is big emotion when I am with Morocco. It is my country and my blood. I was so happy when the coach called on me. Now I want to keep going with Hearts and playing good games.”
Rherras admitted he is now slightly concerned about his international future. He is still striving to establish himself and cement a permanent place under coach Herve Renard. Being forced to leave the camp for health reasons was far from ideal. He must now wait to see if he is included in Renard’s squad for the next World Cup qualifier against Ivory Coast in Marrakech next month.
“Because of the malaria, I only trained for two days with the rest of the Morocco squad,” said the player. “I don’t know if I will be called into the next squad. The games coming up with Hearts have big importance. The national team is a bonus and that is okay. If it doesn’t happen, no problem. I will keep going.”
Of more immediate concern is regaining his place in the Hearts defence. The clean sheet recorded by his colleagues against Dundee leaves head coach Robbie Neilson with a decision to make at Rugby Park this evening.
Callum Paterson, Alim Ozturk, John Souttar and Igor Rossi made up the back four against Dundee, but prior to that Rherras was an ever-present at left-back with Ozturk left on the substitutes’ bench.
“This decision is for the coach,” smiled Rherras when asked if he will feature in Ayrshire. “I feel well now so if I play, it is good for me. The bench is also good if that happens. This is a big opportunity for us to win.”
Opportunities are coming thick and fast for Hearts, who follow up tonight’s match with a trip to Inverness on Saturday and then a home match with St Johnstone on November 5. By then, it will be time for another international break.
Neilson has already made clear his intentions between now and then – securing nine points would keep Hearts firmly in touch with leaders Celtic at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
“We have three games in a row and they are very, very important,” explained Rherras. “We are third in the league at the moment and we are only one point behind the team in second place [Aberdeen]. We must keep going in these three games. It is very important to get nine points and that is what we will try to do.”