Ziyech warns World Cup rivals not to underestimate Morocco

Morocco may have their backs to the wall when they go to the World Cup, having been grouped with European champions Portugal and Spain, but Hakim Ziyech says there is no point in traveling to Russia if they don't fancy their chances of winning.

Blunt speaking has long been a hallmark of a player who has seems to have a magnet for attracting controversy and does not temper that with his attitude to the game.

"If we don't believe that we can progress, what is the point of going to the tournament?" the Ajax Amsterdam midfielder told KweséESPN as Morocco headed to the World Cup for the first time since 1998.

Ziyech was only five at the time, born in the Dutch coastal town of Dronten to Moroccan émigré parents.

Like many with a similar heritage, he has turned down the overtures of the Dutch football association to rather play for Morocco, and while 'Oranje' sit at home watching Russia 2018 on television, Ziyech is now at the Moroccan base camp in Voronezh preparing for their opening Group B game against Iran in St Petersburg on Friday.

"I had hoped that the Dutch team would have qualified too, but it does confirm that I made the right choice for Morocco," Ziyech said. "I didn't need confirmation, but now that I have it, that's good too.

"It means a lot to have qualified for the World Cup. It is the first time in 20 years that we've made the World Cup, and I'm proud to have been a part of the team that has achieved that.

"I expected it would be a big thing for the people of Morocco that we qualified, but I didn't expect it to be as big as it was. It was crazy, all the celebrations. I felt very proud."

Morocco came through their African group qualifiers without conceding a goal, and made sure of their place in the finals with a 2-0 away win last November over the Ivory Coast, who had been to three previous World Cups in a row.

It has made the Moroccans the form team from the continent; a trend they continued in their pre-tournament preparations with a draw against Ukraine and victories over Slovakia and Estonia in their last warm-up games.

But last December's finals draw delivered a monstrous task if they are to advance past the first round as one of the top two finishers in a group with Iran, Portugal and Spain. Still, Ziyech insists they are in Russia to make their mark.

"This is a difficult group, but if we look at it through a positive lens it can be good ... good for us as players, but also good for us as a country," Ziyech said. "To play against these kinds of countries will be difficult, but it will be nice too. Playing against the likes of [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Andres] Iniesta is a great motivation, but we believe in ourselves."

Morocco, adds Ziyech, must under no circumstances be underestimated: "If you look at the World Cup, every team that is playing must be considered a threat. If you are not a decent side then you don't qualify."