It has been some journey for Schalke midfielder Amine Harit. Two years ago, the French-born Morocco international was still playing for the Nantes reserves, but now he is hoping to shine on the biggest stage of them all as he heads to the FIFA World Cup with the Atlas Lions.
"It's all gone very quickly!" the 20-year-old admitted to French sports daily L'Équipe in early June. "But I'm not going to complain. I'm vying for a starting place with my national team, and at the World Cup to boot. I think there's a little star watching over me."
The planets have certainly aligned very nicely for Harit in a short space of time. As recently as February 2017, he was dropped from the Nantes first team by coach Sergio Conceicao for going to a nightclub two days before a league game against Dijon. The incident did little to improve the reputation of a player who was already seen as something of a party animal.
From party animal to lionheart
"It was hard for me to change that perception," Harit admitted. "People were saying, 'he's just a little idiot', and I could understand their reaction. It was a mistake. If you do that here in Germany, you're dead. If you're an important player and you're exhausted, or you get injured for three months, if you let your team down, then it's normal to pay the price."
Harit's carefree attitude came very close to costing him a place at the UEFA U19 Euro in 2016, when he was still representing his native France. But coach Ludovic Batelli was impressed with his improved work ethic in the run-up to the tournament, and chose to take a punt on a player he described as "enormously talented".
The gamble paid handsome dividends as France lifted their eighth title, with Harit making the team of the tournament after providing five-star service for top scorer Jean-Kevin Augustin – now of RB Leipzig – and Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe. When he returned to Nantes Harit was promoted to the first team, before joining Schalke in 2017.
The Tedesco touch
"Amine is a smart, technical player with excellent dribbling skills, who also helps out defensively," Royal Blues coach Domenico Tedesco told the club's official website, after Harit signed a four-year deal with the Gelsenkirchen club. "He often looks for original attacking solutions and can really make a difference. We're delighted to bring him on board."
Though it took him a few weeks to find his feet in the Bundesliga, Harit was soon flourishing under Tedesco – unsurprising for a player who believes it is "hugely important" to have a special relationship with his coaches – and his maiden season eventually exceeded all expectations. As well as tying opposition defenders in knots with his electric pace and mazy dribbles, the 20-year-old contributed three goals and three assists as the Royal Blues finished second behind Bayern Munich to ensure a return to the UEFA Champions League.
Watch: Schalke's incredible 4-4 comeback against Dortmund!
Harit's derby heroics
The fleet-footed midfielder earned himself a place in Schalke folklore for his part in the sensational 4-4 draw with bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund in November's Revierderby. Harit came off the bench with his side 4-0 down and turned the game on its head, scoring his first Bundesliga goal and soldiering on until the final whistle despite a gash in his calf. While that particular game won him the affection of the Royal Blue faithful, his superb performances throughout the campaign earned him the TAG Heuer Rookie of the Season award.
"When I moved from Nantes to Schalke, I had to seriously up my game," Harit admitted. "In the Bundesliga, you have a lot less time to control the ball, and you have to put in two or three times as much effort. If you think you're just going to be playing the ball into feet, nice and easy does it, you're in for a rude awakening. I had to work with a physical trainer after every session. My goal now is to bulk up so that I can stay on my feet better."
As well as bringing him to the attention of the wider footballing world, 2017/18 had a major impact on Harit's international career. Eligible to play for Morocco through his parents, who hail from Casablanca, he chose to represent the Atlas Lions in September 2017.
A change of allegiance
The Moroccan Federation had been trying to lure Harit away from France for over a year, and head coach Hervé Renard eventually convinced him to make the switch. He made his debut in a World Cup qualifier against Gabon at the Stade Mohamed V in Casablanca, where he used to watch games with his father and uncles as a boy.
"I came on a few minutes before the end, but it was as if I'd played the whole game," Harit smiled. "The atmosphere is extraordinary. It brought back memories of going to the stadium as a kid to watch a game between Wydad and Raja.
"You never forget the first coach who calls you up to the national team," he added. "And coach Renard has given me the possibility of playing at a World Cup at the age of 20, so I'll be grateful to him all my life. It's different with him because of his charisma, his aura. Those white shirts! (laughs) He's a tough coach, but fair. And away from football it's great, he's always laughing with us."
To Russia with love
The mood in the Morocco camp will no doubt become more solemn as the country gears up for a first World Cup since 1998. Harit was only a year old when the Atlas Lions were knocked out in the group stage in France, despite a memorable 3-0 win over Scotland. In Russia they face the arduous task of coming through a group containing Portugal and Spain, although they will be looking to make a bright start in their opener against Iran, which arrives three days before Harit's 21st birthday.
Morocco have enjoyed a successful build-up to the World Cup, while their home-based players stormed to victory at the inaugural African Nations Championship in February. But it is Schalke's former enfant terrible turned Bundesliga star who could turn out to be the X factor as they look to reach the knockout stages for just the second time in their history. Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and co. have been warned.