TAKE a look through the Hibs squad-list and most of the players who don the green and white have fairly standard football upbringings.
There’s your Ben Williams and James Collins, who started off at English Premiership clubs before moving north, your Liam Craigs and Paul Cairneys, who made the jump up from less illustrious sides and then your Paul Hanlons and Alex Harris, products of Hibs’ youth academy. And then there’s Abdellah Zoubir.
Hibs manager Pat Fenlon signed 21-year-old Zoubir on loan from French Ligue 2 side Istres on transfer deadline day to add “something different” to his side – and that he certainly has. A goal against Stranraer in the League Cup, a couple of flashy displays off the bench and a match-winning contribution against Partick Thistle have given the Hibs faithful someone to get excited about. His football upbringing explains just why they should do so.
Zoubir is an international futsal player. He’s represented France Under-21s in the sport and managed to carve himself a football career on the back of it. For those not familiar with futsal, it is a five-a-side Portuguese derivation of football, with four outfield players and a goalkeeper put in a team on a pitch generally 40 metres long and 22m wide. The pitch is indoor and normally the sort of surface most Scots associate with school gymnasiums. It is a high-intensity game focused on skill, technique, dribbling and entertainment– the kind of facets Hibs fans crave.
Deep in the bowels of Easter Road’s West Stand, the softly-spoken Zoubir tells me about his futsal career. He’s still getting to grips with English, so in his first newspaper interview since moving to Scotland, we converse in French. He is a shy man, yet extremely polite and kind enough to say his words slowly to ease my translation. It is quickly apparent that he prefers to let his football skills do the talking.
“I started playing football when I was very small with the local club in Lille Sud,” Zoubir tells the Evening News. “That’s where I learned all my basic skills. After that, I played two years at youth level for another club in the Lille area called Wasquehal.
“After my two years there, I put my focus into futsal with Lille Futsal. I started off in the Under-17s and soon I was called into the France Espoirs (Under-21s) and by the time I was 19, I was in the first team with my futsal club and was playing regularly in the Espoirs. I then signed for Grenoble FC, who had gone down to the fourth tier of French football.”
At his first ‘proper’ football club, Zoubir was impressive. On YouTube, there is a clip of his best moments in a Grenoble shirt and it’s worth a watch, to get a glimpse of what he can bring to Hibs. He scored nine goals in 30 appearances and helped the club win promotion, which is even more impressive when you consider he was juggling his football career with his futsal one. “At the same time, I was still playing for the French national futsal team,” he reveals. “The manager kept calling me up. I would do the two together – I enjoyed it.”
Last year, Zoubir left futsal behind and focused on football. He got a trial at Ligue 1 club Saint-Etienne and impressed during his month there – “I was offered a contract by the manager, but the terms of the contract weren’t acceptable,” he says – while Lille and Lens also took an interest. Nothing materialised from those clubs, but his futsal achievements and his goals at Grenoble persuaded Istres, of Ligue 2, to take a chance on him and make him an offer in January this year.
Zoubir is clearly passionate about futsal and what it has taught him.
“Futsal has changed an awful lot over the years. In France, the sport has evolved so much that it has become semi-professional,” he explains. “The fundamentals of futsal are dribbling, keeping the ball on the ground – it’s all very technical. All the players you see in the French football national team, they grew up playing futsal. They would have practised it every day in the suburbs in their cities. I played for a year with Wissam Ben Yedder, who is now one of the main strikers at Toulouse. I also played with Moussa Sao, who is at Le Havre and he is going to be a big player . . . plenty of good players come out of futsal.
“It’s clear to me that futsal has made me the player that I am. The ball is always rolling. It has helped me on the ‘big pitch’ too. You often find yourself in tight situations and futsal has given me the skill to get out of those situations. Generally, on a football pitch, there is more space than a futsal one, so for a futsal player, it’s easy to eliminate a player.”
So how did a futsal star playing in the second tier of French football arrived at Hibs? “I was training at Istres, like I was planning to after the summer break,” he says. “In the last week of pre-season, I was given the opportunity to go on trial with Hibs for a week. It went well, the manager liked me and the two clubs came to a loan agreement.
“I wasn’t really looking to leave Istres, because I have two years left on my contract and I’d been promoted into the senior squad. I was happy there and ready to play, but when the offer came in, I spoke with Freddy Arpinon (a former Hibs player who was coaching at Istres) and he told me it was a good club and that it would be a good move for me. After that, my mind was made up that I wanted to come here. It’s a beautiful club and everyone here is really nice. The supporters are brilliant. It’s a club with a bright future.”
It is to Hibs’ benefit that he has moved to Edinburgh. Such has been the level of his performances that there is a clamour for Zoubir to start tomorrow’s match against Celtic. It is a conundrum for Fenlon, whether to play his wildcard from the start or use him as an impact substitute, as he did against Partick in Hibs’ last match. Indeed, finding the best position for Zoubir is also a brain-teaser, as he can play anywhere in attack.
Zoubir is philosphical about it. “I don’t know if I’ll be starting or not tomorrow – that’s for the coach to decide – and in terms of my best position, that’s also up for him to decide. All I can say is that I’m not a defender,” he says, laughing. “I’m an attack-minded player, I can play anywhere along the front line. As for being a sub, it’s up to the manager to decide whether I’m used best from the start or as a substitute. Personally, I want to play all the time, like every player does, but it’s the manager’s call.”
Forcing his way into the Hibs first-team is Zoubir’s short-term goal, but it would also lead to a desire to achieve something that comes from his family heritage. He may have represented France on the futsal pitch, but on the football field, he wants to follow in the footsteps of former Hibs players Merouane Zemmama and Abdeslam Benjelloun and play international football with Morocco.
“One of my ambitions is to play football for the Moroccan national team,” he reveals. “I’m not closing any doors anywhere, but my parents are from Morocco. My mum is from Casablanca, my dad is from a smaller village. I want to do it for my family – it would make them very proud if I was to wear the colours of Morocco.”
That is for another day, however. Learning English, settling into his new apartment, which he only found on Wednesday after spending a month in a hotel, and life in Edinburgh, are more immediate concerns. “I’m starting to understand the players and the manager more and more. Naturally, it was quite hard to begin with. I’m about to begin English lessons, so that will help too,” he says.
The Hibs dressing-room is helping him along the way. “The players here have been good with me,” he continues. “They are always asking how I am, what news I have – they never cut me out of anything. They are always integrating me into activities, they call me when we’re not in training, they look after me. They are a good bunch of guys.
“In my spare time, I’ve been going into the town centre and exploring it. I’m getting into a routine. I’ve just got myself a new apartment after living in a hotel. I’ve managed to watch one French match since I was here – Marseille v Monaco. And all my family are planning on coming over to watch me and support me, so that will help.”
On the pitch, Zoubir’s sternest test will be tomorrow’s clash with Celtic.
“I’ve found that all the teams in Scotland are of the same level. It is a very equal league,” he says, before adding: “Celtic are a big team, though.”
A big team, but one that a diminutive, humble man taught to do tricks no-one else can might just be able to fell.