Troubled Youth, Moroccon Heart and Ajax Star: 3 Things on New Chelsea Signing Hakim Ziyech


London: Moroccan international Hakim Ziyech became Chelsea manager Frank Lampard’s first signing on Thursday when he joined the Londoners on a 40 million-euro ($43.4 million) deal from Dutch side Ajax.

Here AFP Sport picks out three things about the 26-year-old who overcame a troubled youth to become an integral part of an outstanding Ajax team:

TRAGEDY FORCED HIM OFF THE RAILS

Ziyech was born in the Netherlands, the youngest of eight children of Moroccan parents. He was close to his metal worker father Mohamed who died when he was just 10. Although he found solace in football, the shock of that early loss had an impact on him later. The family’s hopes of one of the children succeeding in football lay with him after two of his elder brothers Faouzi and Hicham saw their careers peter out after being convicted of burglary. They were sacked by their respective clubs’ academies. “Our last hope in the family was Hakim,” said Faouzi.

Snapped up by Heerenveen academy largely due to his mentor Aziz Doufikar — the first Moroccan to play professional football in Holland — he failed to settle with his Armenian foster family and instead fell in with the wrong crowd leading to run-ins with the law.

As Ziyech’s career threatened to spiral out of control, Doufikar and his agent Mustapha Nakhli took him in hand with the latter renting an apartment in Amsterdam in 2012 and sharing it with his then 18-year-old client.

“As a little kid I didn’t realise what it was like to have no father,” said Ziyech.

“I was 14 or 15 when I got really grumpy. I was really on the verge. I closed myself off to the outside world.”

ZIYECH’S HEART LIES WITH MOROCCO

Ziyech was much coveted after his talent shone under first Marco van Basten at Heerenveen and then after he moved to Twente. Elevation to the Dutch national side, then coached by Danny Blind, beckoned — he had already played for the U-19, U-20 and U-21 Dutch national sides — but he opted to play for Morocco making his senior debut in 2015.

“Danny Blind can put as much pressure on me as he wants,” Ziyech explained to the website of his then club Twente in November 2016.

“I will not play for the Netherlands. Choosing one’s national team is not done with the brain but with the heart. In my case without hesitation it was Morocco. I have always felt Moroccan even though I was born in Holland. Lots of people will never understand this feeling.”

His former club manager van Basten had been one of those, lambasting both him and fellow Dutch-Moroccan Oussama Tannane for choosing Morocco.

“Hakim Ziyech and Oussama Tannane are idiots,” stormed the former Dutch playing icon to De Telegraaf in March 2016.

“How can you be so stupid to choose Morocco if the Dutch national side are clearly interested in you.”

CHELSEA’S GAIN, ARSENAL’S LOSS

The change in his behaviour off the pitch reaped benefits on the field for Ajax.

He shone last season in which he scored 21 goals and provided 24 assists as Ajax won a domestic double and came within sight of the Champions League final only to be denied by Tottenham’s extraordinary late second leg comeback.

Indeed Ajax director of football Marc Overmars recommended Ziyech to his former club Arsenal last summer seeing him as a viable alternative to the inconsistent Mesut Ozil.

“I believe Hakim Ziyech is better than Mesut Ozil,” Overmars told AD.

“I would advise Arsenal to sell Ozil and buy Ziyech for half of the money, but they didn’t listen to me.”

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