Hibs ace Zemmama braced for the battle

TO most footballers, rupturing a cruciate ligament is a devastating injury, one which requires surgery and months of gruelling rehabilitation. During such times, the only other face he's likely to see is the club physio.

Hibs star Merouane Zemmama knows exactly what lies ahead having suffered one of the game's most feared injuries but today the little Moroccan playmaker stoically described the blow as "my destiny."

Rather than simply feel sorry for himself, the midfield ace revealed he's already looking forward to rejoining his Easter Road team-mates early next season.

The 26-year-old will pay another visit to a specialist next week when a date for the necessary operation on his left knee will be decided, with the surgery likely to take place in a London hospital.

Then will begin the long road to recovery, one which Zemmama knows will be tough but one which he views with stoicism, stating simply: "That's football, that's life." Rupturing his cruciate ligament in a challenge with Falkirk's Marc Twaddle just 11 minutes into his comeback match following a four-game absence was just the latest setback for Zemmama in a season marred by injury. He has started just 16 matches but, incredibly, lasted the whole 90 minutes on only five occasions.

After missing the first three games having picked up a thigh injury on the eve of Hibs' pre-season match with Bolton Wanderers, Zemmama looked set to light up Easter Road with his wizardry, only to be plagued with sciatica and a persistent hamstring problem which saw him drift in and out of Hughes' side.

Even so, Zemmama approached the trip to Falkirk determined to make up for lost time by playing his part in one final push for European football. However, his hopes were cruelly dashed.

He said: "The Falkirk guy went for the ball but got my leg first. I felt a sharp pain in my knee and I knew right away it was something serious although their fans seemed to think I was making the most of it."

A scan confirmed Zemmama's worst fears, that his season was over and he faced the prospect of up to seven months out. He said: "It was very disappointing because I felt I'd done well when I'd played this season and I was looking forward to helping the team get into Europe.

"But our destiny is already decided and this was my destiny. Lots of football players have suffered this injury and come back to play well and I am looking forward to doing the same. I'll see the specialist again next week when he'll decide exactly when to operate and after that I'll work hard to come back even stronger."

As a result of his misfortune, there will be no summer holiday for Zemmama, his wife Zenib and their toddler son Mehdi, with the little midfielder insisting he'll immediately begin his rehabilitation work under the watchful eye of club physio Colin McLelland who, he jokes, has become his "best pal" given the time they've spent together in recent months.

He said: "I can have plenty of holidays after my career is finished so it's no problem making that sacrifice as I've always worked very hard to become the best football player I can be.

"So there's no point spending three or four weeks on holiday when I can be working towards regaining full fitness. Hopefully that will be in August or September although no definite targets have been set this early."

The injury is the latest chapter in Zemmama's chequered Easter Road career. The North African star was signed by former boss Tony Mowbray, arriving in Edinburgh in the summer of 2006 to join his countryman Abdessalam Benjelloun after Hibs secured a work permit.

However, while Zouma, who had been playing in the Middle East, insisted he was a free agent, his former club Raja Casablanca suddenly insisted he remained under contract to them, a claim he denies to this day.

A protracted dispute between the clubs, one which Zemmama felt prevented him returning to his homeland, even on holiday, was finally resolved, with the Moroccan playing his part as Hibs went on to hammer Kilmarnock 5-1 at Hampden to lift the CIS Insurance Cup under Mowbray's replacement as manager, John Collins. As Collins departed and another former Hibs favourite Mixu Paatelainen moved into the Easter Road hotseat the following season, Zemmama remained a key figure in the side only to break a metatarsal in his foot as the club's push for Europe faltered.

Zemmama said: "It always seems to be this time of the year when we are hoping to win a place in Europe. Like a couple of years ago it's very disappointing to find myself injured and unable to make any contribution at such a vital stage in the season.

"But hopefully this will be my last injury and I'll be able to come back early next season, get back into the team, which, fingers crossed, will be in Europe and help bring some more success to the club." By then Zemmama will be into the final year of his contract but, he insisted, he still feels he has a debt to pay to Hibs, particularly for the compassionate way in which they dealt with him when Home Office rules prevented Zenib, who he married in the summer of 2008, joining him in this country.

As she was then 17, Zenib was a year too young to comply with visa regulations, a situation which was further complicated a few months later when the qualifying age was raised to 21.

At that stage Zemmama still had two years of his Hibs contract remaining and the club, recognising they could hardly demand he be separated from his then pregnant wife, agreed to him spending a year on loan in the United Arab Emirates.

He returned last summer as Hibs secured his family's right to join him in Scotland, saying: "The club have been good to me and I feel I really owe them for what they have done for me.

"In life every time you have a problem you must deal with it, life without problems is nothing. When you have them you must be hard in your mind."

And it's that attitude which boss Hughes again believes will provide Zemmama with the fortitude to overcome the latest hurdle in his career, professing to having been taken aback at his player's disposition towards the ordeal he is currently facing.

He said: "Zouma has a fantastic mindset, a tremendous attitude. Unfortunately, we haven't seen the best of him this season but hopefully he'll come through this and be back next season all the stronger for it."