Bodies sunk to the ground, Heads hung in disbelief, the Ajax players tried to make sense of what just happened. They had just lost to a last gasp goal in a game where they had hit the bar twice. Hakim Ziyech, whom had netted on the night, had his shirt in his mouth. He had hit the post too. What if?
Many celebrated their fairytale, equally, some tried to dampen it, they could have gone all the way. They didn’t belong here some said. They had outdone themselves. Ajax are based in Amsterdam, the capital of Netherlands; I remember being told by my Geography tutor, The Netherlands was the only country below sea level. I always thought, they did everything by swimming. A country more popular for her diversity, the canals and Anne Frank. Everyone is welcome there. It’s a theme common everywhere, from Arnhem to Emmen, Enschede, Utrecht, Eindhoven and even the capital, Amsterdam.
It’s a feature that is obvious in her football. This is a country famed for the innovation of total football, the greatest to have never won the World cup, runners up in ’74,’78 and 2010. Too much of near misses.
Morocco is an enclave in North Africa rooted in Islam, and is known as one of the more peaceful Arab nations. Home to the Berbers, the football history of Morocco isn’t as storied as the Dutch. They ’ve won the odd AFCON. One would then wonder how they are ending up in the newspaper headlines with the Netherlands. It’s not far-fetched, Football. In recent years, there has been a consistent tussle between the two nations for talents. How we got here? At the latter end of the 16th century, the Netherlands had been attempting to establish friendly relations with Islamic countries, due to their common enmity with Spain. In 1613, Al Hajari visited the Dutch Prince, Maurice of Oranje, discussing the possibility of an alliance between Morocco, the Dutch Republic and the Ottoman Empire. It gave birth to strengthening relations between both countries and 500 plus years later, there is an ongoing battle for footballers, who either moved to the Netherlands at a young age, or were born there.
After all, the Dutch league is a developmental (or a feeder) league. A breeding ground for youngsters, who want to make the step up. A look at Ajax’s 1995 Champions League winning squad tells the story. Louis van Gaal’s conquerors were picked apart, and by 1999, one could barely identify the squad. Football is not as forgiving these days, Ajax’s squad this season, may not last the summer. Since that ’95 triumph, Only Feyenoord and die Godzoinein have made it to the latter stages of European competitions. Feyenoord’s 2001 UEFA Cup winning squad was quickly nipped in the bud with five players leaving that summer. This year, Frenkie de Jong has confirmed a move to Barcelona, Onana, van de Beek, Tagliafico, David Neres and de Ligt are the subject of big moves abroad already. Hakim Ziyech, the young centre-piece, a gifted Moroccan is equally in the market, for chump change. Holland is simply seen as the ticket to a move to Europe’s top four leagues. They are bordered by Germany, they aren’t so far from England. The diversity makes it easier to transition to those leagues.
There have been fifty-six Moroccans to participate in Holland’s Premier Division. Yassine Abdellaoui, the first, did so in 1992, He like Ziyech, was born in the Netherlands, the midfielder netted twenty plus goals in a career that spanned thirteen years in the Dutch League. He was a colossus for Willem II in two spells, and after an explosive spell at NAC Breda, He moved to Spain for one season, after which he returned to Holland. The time “abroad” didn’t work out.
More recently, there have been a lot of Moroccans breaking through from the Eredivisie, some have worked, others not so lucky. Nordin Amrabat was born in Holland, made his name at PSV, and then left for Turkey, he has been a journeyman since, six clubs in eight years, much was expected, but he never reached the heights he was touted for. Oussama Assaidi was the truth when he left Holland for Liverpool in 2012, He only made four appearances at Anfield. He is fondly remembered for a wonder strike with Stoke. He has subsequently returned to Holland. Zakaria Labyad is another name that rings true, having blossomed at PSV, He moved to Portugal with Sporting, He never adapted. He has also returned, and is now a bit part player at Ajax. Mounir El Hamdaoui shone for the Dutch age grade teams and Excelsior before a move to Tottenham, He would spend all of his time in England at Derby in the Championship before returning to win Eredivisie titles with AZ and Ajax. He is at Excelsior now.
There are youngsters that would mostly fair better now. Mimoun Mahi is 25, and has left for FC Zurich after seven years at Groningen, he probably should have held out for a bigger move. Oussama Tannane was a bag of potential. He has since moved back to Utrecht on loan after leaving for St. Etienne. Ziyech would be 26 this year, He is in line for a big move after the explosive past two years he has gotten. His teammate Noussair Mazraoui, is another Dutch-born Moroccan, flourishing as one of the best young Right Backs in the World already. The 21-year old indicated to play for Morocco ahead of Holland. He could be the best in his position in a few years and is definitely getting a big move soon. The 23-year old, Oussama Idrissi plays for AZ. He swiftly declared his allegiance to the Kingdom of Morocco in 2018, and has since earned two caps. He netted eleven times in 44appearances in the 2018/19 season, and was a regular feature for all the Dutch youth teams, A man who was likened to Arjen Robben, Idrissi is the truth and isn’t far from a move to a top four league.
The El Hankouri brothers; Redouan and Mahmoud are also living up to expectations, They have represented the Dutch at youth level, but the call to represent Morocco isn’t far away. Sometimes, its just cooler to be called an Atlas Lion than an Oranje.
One would bet that we haven’t seen the last of these Lions in Holland, its apparently their route to stardom. After all, other Afrcians have done it. Mido, Wilfried Bony, Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu all either won top-scorer awards or league and Champions League titles.