The last decade in African football has seen countless tug-of-wars between countries of players’ birth and countries of their origin. With a large diaspora Morocco is one of the countries that has been at the forefront of the scramble for players. This article is the first in the new Moroccan Rahala series that will profile players of Moroccan descent that have opted not to play for the Atlas Lions. Here, Benjamin Hajji, who runs Moroccan football site @MarocFooty, begins the series by profiling Ibrahim Afellay.
In 2012 it was reported that about 4.5 million Moroccans – almost 15% of the country’s total population – were living abroad. Originally, this group was heavily comprised of men who migrated from Morocco on their own after World War II, when Europe needed manpower in a time of reconstruction. In the latter years, many others have followed in their footsteps. Today Morocco represent one of the largest groups of non-western immigrants in Europe, most residing in France, Spain and Belgium. In Netherlands, only Turkey and the former Dutch colonies have more immigrants.
Although a big part of the younger generation is now born in Europe, they have all carried one thing with them: the love and passion for football. This has led to an impressive amount of European players of Moroccan descent in the biggest leagues on the continent, with the potential to strengthen the national team of their ancestors, as we have seen many examples of in recent years.
Today, Morocco’s squad consist mainly of players born abroad, with Medhi Benatia, Amine Harit and Hakim Ziyech being some of them. The trio have all represented the country of their birth in youth level, but ultimately chosen to play for the Atlas Lions. But many have picked differently and reasons for that varies. Some felt a stronger connection towards the country they grew up in, others simply got caught up in the hype, while some felt their chances of developing were greater somewhere else.
Ibrahim Afellay fits the latter. A huge talent on the ball, and a humble, mature and reflected professional off the field, Afellay possesses a combination we see too rarely among Moroccan footballers. Despite failing to live up to expectations and turning down the national team, Afellay is still to this day highly respected by the Moroccan people, unlike others with the same backstory. He has embraced his roots with pride and acted as a role model for young Moroccans growing up in Europe.
Afellay was born in Utrecht to Berber parents from Al Hoceima, who left the country in the 60’s in hopes of improving their life. The original goal was for his father to become a professional boxer in Spain, but they ended up settling down in the Netherlands. Afellay grew up in a tough neighborhood with a high population of immigrants, where football was acknowledged as something you could do to stay out of trouble. He also lost his dad at a very young age, leaving him with his older brother, Ali, and mother, Habiba, growing up. He was immensely proud of his roots and was regularly on holiday in Morocco, visiting his parents’ hometown.
Starting off in local club VSK, he joined USV Elinkwijk, before being spotted by a scout from national giants, PSV, at the age of 10. In Eindhoven, he was quickly noticed and progressively climbed up the ranks of the academy. In 2004, at only 17 years of age, he made his official debut with the first team and established himself as a regular two years later, forming a strong midfield trio with Timmy Simons and Philip Cocu. Three years later Afellay won the Johan Cruijff Shield, awarded to the best young player in the league, and was asked to pick a suitable location to build football pitches for kids. He chose Al Hoceima, in honour of his father and love for the Moroccan people.
By the time he received the prestigious award, the Dutch and Moroccan federations had already been in contact with Afellay and his entourage for a long period and in January 2007 he was called up by both national teams. After months of deliberation, at the age of 20, he eventually chose the Netherlands and broke the hearts of Moroccans, explaining that it would benefit his development as a footballer. “I was flattered by Morocco’s interest, but I consider the choice to play for the Netherlands to be the right one. Playing for Morocco would be an honour, but I think this would help me progress with PSV.”
The Oranje’s head coach at the time, Marco van Basten, was obviously happy with the decision, but could also understand Afellay’s difficulties when choosing his national team. “While he was born and raised in the Netherlands, I know that Morocco is very close to his heart and that the Moroccan community means a lot to him,” Van Basten said at the time.
Afellay made his international debut in a qualifier against Slovenia and was involved in three games when Netherlands reached the quarter final of Euro 2008, playing 62 minutes in their extra time loss to Russia. He then missed most of the 2010 World Cup qualification through injury, but recovered in time for friendlies in late 2009 and eventually made the squad to South Africa. Unfortunately, he was behind Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt and Eljero Elia in the pecking order and didn’t get more than 14 minutes in total when Oranje made it all the way to the final.
Ahead of the 2010/11 season, Afellay was appointed as PSV captain in an attempt to make him sign a new deal, but only a couple of months later he announced that he would not renew his contract. Barcelona then showed up and bought Afellay for €3mill in January, where he became the first ever Moroccan and Berber to play for the Blaugrana. He amassed 28 games in the space of five months, starting in 10 of them, as the Catalans won a third straight league title and the holy Champions League. After they beat Man United at Wembley in the final, every Moroccan will fondly remember Afellay waving the Amazigh flag during the trophy lifting.
A cruciate ligament rupture in his left knee the following fall held him out of almost the entire 11/12 season and proved in many ways to be the beginning of the end for Afellay. He somehow still made the Euro 2012 squad with the Netherlands and even started the game against Germany, where they lost and was subsequently sent home in shame with no points from three group matches.
He was no longer wanted in Barcelona and was sent on loan to Schalke in hopes of reviving his career, but instead he picked up a muscle strain with the national team in November 2012, which held him back for most of the season. Publicly expressing his discontent with the injury treatment at Schalke, he eventually left Gelsenkirchen to find help in Netherlands and received a lot of criticism from both his manager and Schalke fans.
Afellay briefly played a part in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, but you could tell that his international career was over. New manager Danny Blind was not fond of him and a decent loan spell at Olympiacos in 14/15 was far from enough to change his mind. 10 minutes against Kazakhstan in October 2015 proved to be his last ever meaningful game with the Dutch national team, as he joined Stoke City where another serious knee injury would destroy him yet again.
Looking back, you get a sense of what-could-have-been when thinking about Afellay. So much ability combined with the right mindset made him destined for greatness, but the injury problems set him back time and time again. There is no doubt that he had everything required to become an important player for the Netherlands and you can’t really fault him for his choice. It’s hard to imagine what he could have achieved with Morocco, but to the people, he is and will forever be a hero regardless.
You can follow Benjamin Hajji on Twitter.