Having put schoolwork before footwork earlier in his career, FC Differdange 03 striker Omar Er Rafik is making up for lost time with five goals in as many games in this season's UEFA Europa League.
The 27-year-old, a Frenchman of Moroccan extraction, has already helped the Luxembourg club get past Albania's KF Laçi and – more impressively – FC Utrecht from the Netherlands in the opening qualifying rounds. He will now bid to swing another UEFA Europa League tie in his side's favour as Tromsø IL head south looking to defend a 1-0 lead on Thursday night. Differdange are rank outsiders at this level, something Er Rafik hopes will be to their advantage, noting: "We will play without pressure."
A life in football is actually something of an afterthought for Er Rafik, who dedicated himself to his studies as a youngster, rejecting opportunities to try out as a professional. "When I was younger, I could have gone to a football academy, but my parents thought it was more important for me to finish my studies, which I did," said the attacker, who has a master's degree in sports science. However, he never entirely shelved his on-field ambitions. "Of course, I love the game and that's why I'm trying to enjoy it and improve," he said.
His fortunes took a sudden upward trajectory when he moved to Luxembourg in 2009 to sign for second-tier outfit CS Oberkorn. "He was supposed to play in the youth team, but straight after his first training session he was told to join the first team," recalled Alexandre Delmer, who played alongside Er Rafik at Belgian amateur club ES Jamoigne before becoming a journalist.
After two seasons battling for promotion with Oberkorn, Er Rafik was elevated to the First Division by Differdange, marking his entry into top-level football with 23 goals in 26 games in his first term – a total which earned him the league's golden boot. He scored a more modest 13 last time out, but his five goals in Europe have compensated for any perceived shortfall, taking his overall continental tally to nine after he netted four in last year's qualifiers.
The UEFA Europa League clearly brings out the best in Er Rafik, the leading marksman in 2013/14 qualifying, yet he is eager to share the credit for his feats. "This is a personal achievement that I have my team-mates to thank for," he explained, adding: "Naturally, there is motivation to score goals in UEFA competition."
That motivation will be doubled with his team close to returning to the play-offs, where they lost to Paris Saint-Germain FC in 2011/12. A clever forward whose positioning helped him register three goals in the Utrecht tie, he knows just what a couple more strikes against Norwegian side Tromsø would mean. "I am a striker and one who is reliant on my team-mates. But if we can play as well as we did against Utrecht, we have a chance."