World Cup: For Morocco, Hakim has the cure

After the game against Canada, Hakim Ziyech jumped over the billboard on the edge of the fence where a large part of the Moroccan fans chanted his name.

He climbed onto the narrow concrete fence, threw his shirt at a young fan, stretched out his arms and drew a heart with his hand. The frenzied fans could have engulfed him if the panicked guards hadn’t yelled at them. However, Ziyech would hold his pose for a minute so they could turn around and take selfies. Some fans wanted to kiss him, some hugged him, but he would soon climb down the fence much to the relief of the guards. He then disappeared into the tunnel, brought some more of his shirts and flung them into the stands. He basked in the glow of love from the stands.

Giant cut-outs of Ziyech have been placed in Rabat, the Moroccan capital. Fans put his face on the Moroccan flags, a thousand jerseys of his were sold out, faces are painted with his face, he loves the windows of the cars and a football tragedy even named his son Hakim. “The World Cup has made him a national hero,” said Malek Sulaiman, a Moroccan fan from Casablanca. “He’s always been our favourite, and you know, we even protested when he was dropped last year. We scolded the coach and the coach was quickly fired,” he says with a chuckle.

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Malek was referring to Vahid Halihodzic, the Bosnian coach who had banned Ziyech for 15 months for showing up too late for training. He wanted an apology, but Ziyech wouldn’t budge and swore he would never play for the country. But he changed his mind when Walid Regragui, Morocco’s first coach from their country, took over. “That’s the best thing that happened to our football, the return of Hakim and Walid as a coach,” he says.

The sense of nationality is strong, even though 14 of the 26 players in the squad were born and raised outside the country. So is Ziyech, born in a rough neighborhood in Dronden, about 70 kilometers northwest of Amsterdam. The first time he also had an argument with a coach was about his nationality. In the early days of his Ajax career, when his passing range and imagination overwhelmed everyone who laid their eyes on him, Van Basten urged him to transfer his nationality to the Dutch. He refused, and eventually their relationship came under strain. Van Basten claimed that he is “impossibly talented but also impossibly unruly”. Ziyech did not hold back. “He’s a legend, a great player, but a bad manager,” he said.

The clashes and flare-ups with managers would become a recurring theme in his career. Before Halohodzic, his predecessor Renard Herve had also suspended him on disciplinary grounds, although the manager later admitted he was impetuous in throwing it off. Looking back on this wave of incidents, he told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf: “I say my opinion, I demand an explanation, I want a reason. That’s why I might be a difficult guy to work with, but that’s who I am.”
But he’s not all anger and tantrums. There is a softer side. When he was at Ajax, a three-year-old girl asked him for his jersey. He gave it to her, but a man barged in claiming to be her father and took the sweater. He later realized he was lying. But Ziyech discovered the whereabouts of the girl, invited her to a match at the Ajax arena and presented her with an unused soccer ball. “He is a misunderstood footballer,” Moroccan coach Walid Regragui would say.

In Regragui he has a manager who understands him, loves him and spoils him. You could see that during the warm-up before training. Walid is always next to you, having a chat or sharing a joke. After the duel with Canada, he was asked how he managed to get the best out of Ziyech. He replied: “I was expecting the question sooner. To me he is incredible. Many people talk about him as a man who is difficult to manage, but what I see is that if you give him love and trust, he will die for you. It is what I give him and he returns my trust.” Then he added: “To understand him, you need to know a little more about him.”

Growing up in a crime-ridden suburb

You have to travel back in time to the dark alleys of Dronden, a crime-ridden suburb of Amsterdam where he lived with seven siblings and his parents in a two-room apartment. He was attached to his father, who was French. But when he was only 10, he passed away after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. “That disease tore him apart. He could do less and less. He couldn’t walk, eat, talk… And it ended in the worst possible way. I remember the night he died. I was a ten year old boy. I didn’t go back to school. I wasn’t into football either. I was completely gone. I have given up everything,” Ziyech told De Volskrant.

He fell into depression and took refuge in alcohol when he was barely a teenager. His life went astray when former footballer Aziz Doukifar ran into him playing in the street. He told De Telegraaf about the trip: “Hakim has completely gone off the rails. He drank and smoked and also used drugs. I helped him as best I could to get him off this bad path.”

In Doukifar he found the father figure he always wanted. He abandoned his habits and devoted himself to football, where he impressed everyone who watched him. He combines the nimble footwork of a ballet performer with the intelligence of a street soccer player. He sees the channels and paths that his opponents don’t see. The traffic from a goalmouth melee doesn’t choke him. Invariably he finds an outlet, a passing line, a path to the goal. He makes room for himself when there isn’t one. Like a ghost, he glides through the maze of legs and body. At Ajax they used to call him the phantom. He is often prone to risk, but when he turns off his instinct for risk-taking, his game falls apart.

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Initially reclusive, his talents would soon blossom. “I saw that he was afraid to show himself on the field. I let him play several tournaments and then I just watched him grow up. It worked and with a bit of luck Hakim blossomed completely,” he added .

The coach-mentor would use his contacts to get him into Reaal Dronten’s youth academy before switching to ASV Dronten. In 2007, the scouts of Eredevisie club Heerenveen noticed him and took him to their academy. Five years later, he made his first foray into professional football, when he appeared for Heerenveen. From then on, there are many stories about his journey: to FC Twente, where he again got into fights with older players, to Ajax, where his fame skyrocketed and everyone wanted his autograph, and then to Chelsea, where the constant turnover of coaches hampered his career, reduced to cameo act.

His career, for club and country, seemed stricken before Wahid took over as coach and breathed new light and life into him, lighting his country to its first knockout appearance in a World Cup this century. In return, he basks in the glow of the love that his compatriots shower him.

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